In this period of post-election analysis, one critical intervention requires a second look. On Wednesday, 27 October 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of 10,000 soldiers to assist the South African Police Service (SAPS) to secure the local government elections on 1 November.
According to the communique from Parliament, this was to ensure that “a safe and secure environment” exists for voters to exercise their democratic right to vote. Such deployment is not unique. Soldiers have been deployed several times before to assist the police. This time, about 300 hotspots, identified by the security cluster and mostly in Gauteng, were used to justify this deployment, at an estimated cost of just more than R47-million.
It has been asked why the soldiers were deployed to perform policing functions and whether this reflects lack of confidence in the SAPS to fulfil its constitutional duties. The deployment of soldiers is not a sign of confidence in the police, but there is probably no one answer to these questions.
Section 201 of the Constitution gives the President power to authorise the deployment of soldiers to help the police perform their duties. The precedent is that soldiers are deployed when the police are incapable or are failing to ensure stability and public order. It is seen as a stopgap measure, and a last resort. Therefore, the decision is not made lightly and has to be communicated to the National Assembly.
In July 2021, following the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, deficiencies in policing were exposed as police agencies appeared to fail to bring about public order and stability, which resulted in massive looting and destruction of malls, warehouses and property, and blockading and burning of commercial trucks. More than 300 people were killed as residents took it upon themselves to protect their communities and livelihoods. It was only when soldiers were deployed that public order and stability were achieved.
Such a deployment comes with several risks, mainly because soldiers are not trained, nor do they have the appropriate equipment, to perform policing duties within a human rights-based framework. This was illustrated when soldiers were sent in during the hard lockdown in 2020 several deaths and human rights abuses were reported.
The deployment of troops reflects a loss of confidence in our policing agencies to secure the elections. It sends a message that they lack the capacity and capabilities to protect and safeguard people and their property. This is mainly because soldiers are not deployed to provide logistics for the transportation of ballot boxes to counting stations, but to perform policing duties in hotspots.
Perhaps experience is a good teacher. Our policing agencies have proved costly and unreliable before.
In July, the police and intelligence agencies were criticised for their failure to prevent the deadly insurrections in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng which resulted in the destruction of infrastructure worth billions of rands, lives and livelihoods. Clearly, drastic reforms are required to bring back the confidence and ensure that our police agencies have the capacity and capabilities to fulfil their mandates. Policing expert Cees de Rover describes the SAPS as an “unprofessional, moribund, corrupt, incompetent and inward-looking organisation”.
Reform of the SAPS can no longer be ignored or postponed. The tensions that seem to exist in its top echelons – which have resulted in the suspension and dismissal of senior officers – as well as the tensions between the national commissioner and the minister of police, have caused instability in the performance of the SAPS. There has also been a steady increase in most crime categories. Given all these challenges, the SAPS is clearly an organisation in complete disarray and incapable of self-correcting.
An intervention is required to rescue this important organisation. The report of the Panel of Experts on Public Order Policing established after Marikana provides important recommendations that should be considered in initiating a reform process. The key recommendations include:
- The need to professionalise, strengthen accountability and demilitarise policing. The professionalisation of the police is important in ensuring that suitably skilled and qualified people are appointed to leadership positions;
- The establishment of a Police Board was recommended to ensure that senior police leaders undergo a rigorous recruitment process to ensure that suitably qualified persons fill the leadership positions. The lack of confidence in the police stems from several leadership failings and a lack of accountability; and
- The need to demilitarise the police is one of the key issues foregrounded in the National Development Plan, which requires the police to adopt community-oriented policing approaches in providing policing services. This requires investment in training and resourcing.
With about 200,000 personnel in the SAPS, the metro police, traffic and municipal police agencies, South Africa has the human policing capacity to protect its citizens. The country has hosted major international events, including the 2010 World Cup, without major policing challenges.
That a decade later the confidence in the policing agencies is at its lowest, warranting the deployment of soldiers, is serious cause for concern. DM
Themba Masuku is Programme Manager at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum. He was a member of the Panel of Experts on Public Order Policing in 2017-18 which was chaired by the late Judge Ntshangase. He holds a master’s degree in Social Science from KwaZulu-Natal and a master’s degree in Law with specialisation in Human Rights.