One of the reasons why the decision to call riot police into parliament to disperse the EFF a fortnight ago seemed alarming to many is because we have abundant recent evidence in this country of just how badly things can escalate when public order policing gets involved. When SAPS top brass presented their plans for “enhancing public order policing capacity” in Parliament on Wednesday, it was revealing that most of the focus seemed to be on suppressing protests. By REBECCA DAVIS.
“The Republic is currently experiencing an upsurge in violent incidents which is requiring urgent additional interventions from SAPS,” Lieutenant General Elias Mawela began his presentation to parliament’s police committee on Wednesday. “It is anticipated that this upsurge against state authority will not decline in the foreseeable future.”
Strong words, and they seemed to set the tone for what was to follow. As context for the proposed expansion of the country’s public order policing, SAPS presented their data on the escalation in the number of violent protests over the past decade. Between 2007 and 2008, there were 812 violent protests countrywide. During the 2013-2014 period, this figure had grown to 1907 violent protests.
“We really handle a lot of protests,” national police commissioner Riah Phiyega told the committee, saying that there was a “significant, noticeable increase” in protests of a violent nature. The preferred police term is “community protests”, she said, because not all protests are service-related.
While the number of protests has been steadily growing, the number of public order police (POP) units has been dropping. In 1995, there were 31 POP units with 11,000 members. Currently their members number just 4,721. Malewa attributed this drop rather vaguely as being due to “transformation and changes happening” within SAPS, but also to a shift in police focus after apartheid from crowd management to crime combating and prevention.
But now that this “upsurge against state authority” is on the rise, SAPS wants money to beef it all up again. Phiyega is asking Treasury for R3.3-billion over four years, to be used to almost double POP personnel numbers and upgrade and expand their existing physical resources.
These resources currently include: 561 armoured vehicles; 10 water cannons; and 973 soft-top vehicles. POP members get given a 9mm sidearm (handgun) with 9mm ammunition and a 12-gauge shotgun with “blue double ball and white reduced rounds”.
When members of the public pick up cartridges after a protest, Malewa broke off to explain, mostly it is a “blue type of cartridge” – the blue double ball. A member of the committee asked later whether the blue and white ammunition could be lethal.
“We say it is less lethal,” Malewa replied. “It can be deadly if incorrectly used. If correctly used, it is less lethal; it cannot cause fatalities.”
POP members are also equipped with tear gas launchers, R5 rifles and 5.56mm rounds and R1 rifles and 7.62 mm rounds.
The bulk of the money they are asking for (over R2-billion) will go towards personnel costs, with the remainder for equipment and accommodation. R20 million is earmarked for “pyrotechnics”, which is the term for “non-lethal means to control crowds”. Malewa said there is an “urgent need” for nine water cannons to be allocated to each province – a major increase on the 10 that currently service the whole country.
But the police aren’t just relying on bodies and hardware to control protests. There is also a major emphasis placed on information gathering. “The provision of forewarning intelligence is of critical importance,” Malewa said. POP units will have both “information gatherers” and “information officers”. He was, again, vague as to their duties: information gatherers “go out, they do what is necessary” and intelligence officers “do what they are doing to collect what they are collecting”.
Phiyega later elaborated that intelligence gatherers are “out there in the community collecting information”, and information officers collate the information.
The information they gather about potential unrest or protests is sent to crime intelligence, which alert unit commanders via cellphones and email. They need more information gatherers, Malewa said, to have more “ground coverage”. Phiyega said there was a definite need for new intelligence products because “If there’s going to be a blockage of roads in the community tomorrow, somebody knows”.
Funds have also been allocated for long-range recording devices to record conversations.
They also need recording equipment for another purpose: to gather evidence of public violence for use in court cases. R770,000 has been allocated for new video cameras to add to their existing stock. The latest water cannons are apparently also capable of recording footage. “We must be able to account for each and every protest that we manage,” Phiyega said.
One interesting lacuna in the discussion, given SAPS’ recent history, was the mis-use or over-use of force against protestors. ANC MP Jerome Maake, a committee member, eventually voiced the two ugly words – “police brutality” – in a rambling comment, but it became apparent that his point was the opposite: that the public is always outraged by cases when police attack citizens, but when citizens attack police there is no commensurate offence.
“We cannot afford to be at loggerheads with the people we are supposed to serve and protect,” said Phiyega. “Mutual respect is crucial.”
After the briefing, the Democratic Alliance complained that the Western Cape wasn’t getting enough POP resources compared to the rest of the country, with shadow police minister Diane Kohler-Barnard suggesting in a statement that “the only possible explanation we can think of is that this allocation has been politicised”.
But civil society representatives had different worries. Koketso Moeti, the national co-ordinator of the Local Government Action group – an alliance of South African organisations – described the tone of the briefing as “very concerning”.
“The approach that was referred to in the meeting is one of suppression, force and clamping-down, instead of one that sees the POP’s presence at gatherings as a means of ensuring the safety of protesters,” Moeti told the Daily Maverick.
Moeti pointed out that SAPS’ own data shows that the vast majority of protests in South Africa over the past financial year have been peaceful; 1,907 violent protests may seem like a lot, but there were over 11,000 other protests classified as peaceful.
The emphasis on weaponry and equipment was also significant, Moeti suggested. “[During the meeting] there was no mention of other means of how they maintain public order rather than by forceful means, which is very problematic.” She added that SAPS’ public order policing strategy also appears to ignore the possibility that the presence of riot police can itself be an agitation.
It’s clear that the message from the top is that government is resigned to ever more violent protests. While one approach, encouraged by the likes of Moeti, would see government investing in strategies to address community grievances before they erupt into protest, SAPS is bracing itself for a more hardline tack: spying on communities for evidence of imminent protest action, and bolstering its arsenal to shut these protests down when unrest threatens.
One is reminded, here, of the sometimes-maligned Dinokeng Scenarios, which brought together leaders from a wide range of South African sectors in 2008 to consider possible scenarios of the country’s future by 2020. The ‘Walk Apart’ scenario foresaw a situation where “citizens eventually lose patience and erupt into protest and unrest. The government, driven by its inability to meet citizens’ demands and expectations, responds brutally, and a spiral of resistance and repression is unleashed”.
But one point, at least, should make us all sleep more soundly at night. A committee member asked: Do you ever deploy ill-equipped or ill-trained POP members to protests?
“No,” Phiyega replied firmly. DM
Police want R3.3bn for public order policing, on News24
Photo: A man gestures to the police (not in picture) during violent service delivery protests in Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.