The South African Police Service's (SAPS's) use of stun grenades against student protesters outside Parliament on Wednesday, and elsewhere on Thursday, begs the question: Have stun grenades become a weapon of choice for the SAPS? They are likely better than the rubber bullets that risk bruising, blinding and maiming with relative randomness. But this does not mean they are weapons that can be used flagrantly, without strict procedure or oversight, and it’s unclear whether these are in place. By ANDREW FAULL and MARK SHAW.
There was a flash, a bang and a puff of smoke. Riot shields and clammy hands were pressed into the faces, chests, shoulders and backs of students. Some scattered in shock, others raised their hands and stood their ground in peaceful defiance. A few spewed venom and struck out at the police officers bearing down on them. “We are fighting for you! We are doing it for you!” a student shouted at the wall of blue.
And so what had been a largely peaceful protest turned chaotic on Wednesday afternoon. Students, supported by some staff and university workers, had gathered outside Parliament’s black-metal gates to demand no increase in 2016 university fees, before pushing through an open gate to occupy the parliamentary precinct. Meanwhile, inside Parliament’s chamber, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered his medium-term budget speech.
The symbolism and timing of the students’ intervention could not have been more apt. They had come to challenge the state’s claim that it is invested in education, invested in the youth, and invested in flattening the structural injustice of South African society. They had come to challenge the minister and the government, to demonstrate that Parliament is a place where just change is made actionable, rather than a platform from which the powerful protect their corrupt cronies and the ruling elite trample on their citizens. What they had not come to do was fight with the police, but fight they did. And it all began with a flash and a bang.
The SAPS has been using stun grenades in crowd management for a number of years now. It was in part the firing of tear gas and stun grenades which led to panic by striking mine workers, and the murder of two police officers in Marikana on 13 August 2012. More recently, in June this year, they were used against protesting school children outside the Western Cape education department, where one learner fainted from shock and another was burned.
These incidents beg an important question which seems not to have been asked: Have stun grenades become a weapon of choice for the SAPS – an organisation with a long history of violent suppression of political protest? Their use is of course better than the sharp-point ammunition that tore through mine workers’ flesh and ended 34 lives on 14 August 2012. It is also likely better than the rubber bullets that risk bruising, blinding and maiming with relative randomness. But this does not mean they are weapons that can be used flagrantly, without strict procedure or oversight, and it’s unclear whether these are in place.
First developed for military use in the 1960s, stun grenades are designed to temporarily disorient their targets without causing severe physical harm. They accomplish this by releasing a flash so bright that it temporarily blinds those close by, and a bang so loud that it renders listeners deaf and off-balance. They are designed to split, rather than fragment, and are partially made of cardboard to minimise bodily harm.
Initially intended for use in confined spaces, some police forces have begun using them in crowd management situations. In such contexts they are intended to momentarily ‘soften’ and distract crowds so police officers can intervene with other forms of control. Video coverage of Wednesday’s protests shows SAPS officers doing precisely this. Grenades seem to have be tossed into the crowds of students, after which a line of police stormed them, pushing, beating and forcing them backwards and out through the gates of Parliament.
It is difficult to know quite what preceded the use of the grenades on Wednesday. What imminent threat did police believe the students posed? Did they try to negotiate with them, or to relay student demands to the higher education minister or the president? Did anyone consider facilitating a meeting between them later that evening? Even if individual protesters had posed a legitimate threat, why were they not singled out for removal? Why did the entire body need to be so violently targeted?
And this is an important point: What stun grenades do is that they end any chance of discussion, they fragment and shock the crowd – and, more importantly, while they may disperse the crowd they may well in fact complicate longer term prospects of public order. In short, in this case as in others, throwing them opened a door through which there was no return. The charge by police officers was indiscriminate and violent, amplified by the frenzy of shock and panic that beset many of the students. What had been an orderly mass fragmented into disorderly chaos. The panic may even have been contagious, with both police officers and students becoming increasingly reckless.
How is it that three years after Marikana we are still questioning the SAPS’s ability to peacefully manage protests? The SAPS own ‘Crowd Management Equipment’ presentation submitted to the Marikana commission states that stun grenades “should not be thrown directly at people”, as they were on Wednesday. Nor should they be used in confined spaces. A recent international review of crowd management techniques warns against using the devices altogether on the grounds that they have the potential to cause shock and injury. The SAPS appears to now use them too often and in no way that seems to suggest that a standard procedure is applied before they are thrown.
We are not suggesting that stun grenades should never be used in crowd management. But if they are it must be in very well defined situations and as the very last resort. Wednesday did not warrant them. What appears to be happening is that stun grenades, particularly because of their apparent effectiveness, are now being used as the rule rather than the exception. If used at all, they should only be used when crowds pose imminent threats to people and property, and only once other forms of negotiation and order maintenance have been pursued.
Social movements strive to disrupt. It is only through disruption that otherwise silenced voices are heard. Through their disruption they aim to open spaces in which attention, reflection, thought and action allow the formation of new ways of being in community together.
Stun grenades, too, disrupt. Immediately after they are thrown – but also in the longer term. In the spaces created by their flashes, their bangs and their smoke, police aim to restore to order the status quo. But the fragmentation and chaos they cause leaves longer term damage as Wednesday’s events will no doubt show. The irony is that what the angry student shouted at police was true: the protest was for them, too. Many police officers admit that had they had money for tertiary education, they would not be working for the SAPS. But the injustice of our society blocked their paths, limited their aspirations, and forced many to settle.
Few police officers take pleasure in deploying force. We owe it to them, the students, and the country at large to re-visit the tools and methods through which order is created, and to put in place rules and guidelines through which we can build the country we all want to live in. The use of stun grenades, a comparatively new and very blunt tool, whose use does not appear to be well regulated by the police themselves, is a place to start. DM
Andrew Faull and Mark Shaw work for the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town.
Photo: South African students clash with police amidst gas and stun grenades during violent protests in the parliament precinct, Cape Town, South Africa, 21 October 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA