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22 December 2014 15:58 (South Africa)
South Africa

Marikana, Selebi and the murder of SA's specialist policing skills

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\mandy on police

On 16 August, a sea of angry striking miners armed with spears, knobkerries and allegedly a couple of handguns, faced off against an SAPS battalion armed to the hilt. The bloody consequence is a crucial lesson in the failure of public order policing, one that should never be forgotten. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Thirteen years ago, when Jackie Selebi, was appointed National Police Commissioner, a chain of events was set in motion within South African law enforcement that would unravel the democracy’s immature public order policing skills, with deadly consequences. The death of Andries Tatane last year should have acted as a clear indicator that something was horribly wrong with the way the police managed crowds. But the correct knowledge wasn’t assimilated and the right lessons weren’t learned.

As the smoke cleared from the Marikana killing fields, where an overwhelming force was used to restrain a violent insurrection, a government knee-jerk that sees the implementation of more bad policing strategy is proven to be equally as deadly. There are important lessons to be learned, and integrated.

“Marikana is about public order policing and about how you go about policing a violent crowd. It has to do with a very specialist function, and what’s happened to that,” said scholar and author Jonny Steinberg. “If there had been proper public order policing (at Marikana), there would have been all sorts of alternatives to try before resorting to live ammunition. And even if live ammunition was used it would have been pointed and specific live ammunition.”

A research associate and lecturer at Oxford University’s Centre for Criminology, Steinberg is the author of a number of books about policing, crime and punishment, including Thin Blue, a revelation of the unwritten rules of engagement between SA’s people and its police. 

“The very fact that there was a whole line of cops with semi-automatic rifles, loaded with live ammunition, without a real plan… the fact that this force was there at all was a result of this specialist capacity being lost. Marikana was symptomatic of something technical within the SAPS, and the fact that a previous police commissioner broke down expertise which hasn’t been replaced since. It was about the police facing an unbelievably volatile situation without the expertise to do so, Steinberg said.

Part of the reason public order policing has come undone in this country can be traced back to Selebi’s management of law enforcement as national commissioner. During his heyday, Selebi was many things: sterling civil servant, former ANC youth leader, loyal comrade, distinguished diplomat. The one thing Selebi was not was a seasoned police expert.

“Jackie Selebi was an incredibly arrogant, stubborn man and didn’t know what he didn’t know,” said Steinberg, who explained that because Selebi didn’t have expert knowledge in policing, someone got his ear and convinced him to dissolve specialised units within the SAPS.

Under Selebi, the SAPS was reorganised in a move that took policing from a system that included clusters of highly specialised skills to a multidisciplinary structure where these skills were supposed to be democratised and taken to a branch level. The reorganisation took place in two phases (in 2002 and then again in 2006), which saw 278 specialized units closed. At the same time a flood of nascent experience was brought into the force, and the SAPS trained over 7,000 students at training facilities dotted around the country.

“There is a complex of reasons why he did what he did,” Steinberg said. “And it is not a simple answer, because he genuinely believed that he was strengthening the police, but he also had the sort of personality that made him uncomfortable with these units.”

The result of this would be the loss of highly specialised knowledge and skills in crucial areas, like public order policing. In a monograph for the Institute for Security Studies shortly after the restructuring, former ISS researcher Bilkis Omar explored the true costs of the SAPS restructuring. Omar is now chief policy drafter for the Civilian Secretariat for Police, a body established constitutionally to provide civil oversight of policing.

“The policing of public order in South Africa has long been surrounded by controversy,” Omar wrote in the 2007 monograph, SAPS’ Costly Restructuring: A Review of Public Order Policing Capacity. “The Riot Control Units, which were established under the banner of the South African Police (SAP) in the 1970s in response to the revival of the anti-apartheid resistance movements, remained in place until 1995 when they were merged into the new SAPS.” SA’s democracy brought with it a radical change in the approach to policing, he wrote. 

The 1996 creation of the Public Order Police (POP) unit shifted the focus to the management of crowds as opposed to their control. The approach was not fully embraced until 2002, after lengthy internal within the SAPS. That’s three years after Selebi came on board with his multidisciplinary approach to policing, which saw specialised units sacrificed to the democratisation of policing expertise. 

The nascent Public Order Police units were restructured in 2002 in a way that saw crowd management play second fiddle to crime prevention. “Renamed as Area Crime Combating Units (ACCUs) these units began assisting police stations and other units in VIP protection, domestic violence complaints, stop and search, roadblocks, vehicle check points, patrolling of malls and streets, monitoring hijack hotspots, and other crime combating functions,” Omar wrote. “The argument given by the SAPS management for the change was that public protests had decreased with the demise of apartheid.”

While the broadening of ACCUs’ responsibilities sounded sensible from a financial and operational level, concerns about the dilution of specialised crowd control skills was voiced both inside and outside of the SAPS. “After 2002, however, protest marches and violent protest marches increased steadily with the result that ACCU members’ workload, in terms of both crime combating and crowd management, increased,” Omar’s monograph reads.

In 2006 a second round of restructuring was initiated at the SAPS, ostensibly to improve public service delivery. This reorganisation affected the ACCUs (and other specialised units) in a move aimed at decentralising this expertise to police stations. “The Area Crime Combating Units, after much deliberation, were not fully disbanded but were reduced from seven to three units,” Omar wrote.

The reorganisation was managed clumsily, causing dissatisfaction and destroying the camaraderie in the specialised units. It also led to rivalries in the local stations, where specially trained officers looked down on the locals. “The fear is that the former ACCU members who have been redeployed to stations will have to take over work that should be done by station members who have a propensity to become lazy’, and will as a result, lose their specialist skills,” said a SAPS member interviewed for the monograph.

“There was a realisation as soon as (Bheki) Cele came on board that this had been a mistake, and there was an attempt, firstly, to rebuild the detective specialist units, but secondly to get some sort of semblance back to public order policing, but it was never the same as what it was before,” said Steinberg.

And so it happened that on 16 August a battalion of law enforces, armed to the hilt with live rounds stood facing a sea of armed and angry striking miners at Marikana. 

“If you had a big group like that with weapons, you don't go and mess with them,” a commander in the Apartheid-era riot squad told Mail & Guardian. “You look at where they are, then you say to the leaders: ‘This is where the line is. If you go over that line, we shoot you.’” 

Warning shots would be fired into the ground at the leader’s feet, but if the crowd didn’t toe the line “you may have to pop one or two” the former riot squad leader said, claiming that this tactic would pose “zero risk to the police and fewer protesters put in danger.”

Steinberg said South Africa has seen the brute police force used time and again, but lessons don’t seem to get learned about how to police a crowd that may be dangerous. Lessons are lost because the SAPS turnstile door revolves and new police commissioners come in with their own ideas and agendas.

“We’ve already seen the result of a police force unable to manage public order policing with the death of Andries Tatane. He was killed with a rubber bullet. The reason he was killed by a rubber bullet is that it was shot directly at him. A rubber bullet is meant to be shot at the ground and ricochet. That is a strict, strict instruction in riot control. It is a lethal weapon that you are not meant to aim at people. The reason it was aimed at him was because that public order expertise had been broken down, and there were people using rubber bullets who didn’t know how to use them,” said Steinberg.

After Tatane’s death, Lieutenant General Elias Mawela of the SAPS reaction unit wrote a communiqué to officers which decreed that rubber bullets were to be banned because rubber bullets had been overused in crowd control. “Some of these incidents led to negative publicity in the media which led to questions about the use of rubber bullets in such situations,” Mawela is said to have written.

And so a public outcry led to a knee-jerk reaction where rubber bullets where banned, despite the fact that they weren’t being used properly by the force in the first instance. As a result, said Steinberg, where rubber bullets, used appropriately, might have controlled the crowd at Marikana, live ammunition was used instead. “So the situation gets compounded when there is no expertise. They didn’t shoot any rubber bullets, they shot teargas and then they shot live ammunition,” he said.

But Marikana happened. Brute force replaced specialised knowledge. Thirty four people died and 78 were injured. And South Africa was shocked and shamed because of a legacy of incompetence. Good policing decisions weren’t taken, specialised skills were lost, and insightful knowledge was replaced by reactionary knee-jerk. Sound familiar? DM

Read more:

Photo: A policeman collects weapons that were supposedly used by protesting miners after they were shot outside Marikana. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

  • Mandy de Waal
  • South Africa


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