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More public order police is no easy answer for South Africa

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More public order police is no easy answer for South Africa

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The chaotic unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last month, in which over 300 people died, resulted from a conspiracy to destabilise South Africa. Although precipitated by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on 7 July, the plot must have been hatched well before this.

Had South Africa’s intelligence system provided an adequate warning, the attacks and looting might never have become a major public order policing problem. With effective intelligence, the police could have swiftly de-escalated the situation, arresting key planners and instigators before the insurrection took hold.

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Public order police (POP) and other police resources might also have been deployed, in advance, to areas where they were likely to be needed. Protective barriers could have been placed around possible targets. Community leaders, religious organisations, ward councillors and others might have been mobilised to discourage violence and looting.

Of all the deficits in South Africa’s security system that the unrest exposed, fixing intelligence should undoubtedly be the government’s highest priority. But intelligence cannot always predict public disorder. The authorities need a contingency plan should intelligence prove inadequate and widespread public violence breaks out again.

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Calls for more public order police inevitably follow the kinds of crises that gripped South Africa last month. But that may be neither possible nor desirable given the country’s current crime context and the government's budgetary constraints.

The government has not provided figures on how many public order police and other law enforcement personnel were deployed during the unrest. Whatever the facts, the violence outstripped the police’s capacity to respond, leading to the 12 July deployment of soldiers to supplement police resources.

In the aftermath of the 2012 Marikana massacre in which 44 people died – most at the hands of police – the South African Police Service (SAPS) laid out ambitious proposals to expand and equip public order policing units. These envisaged that by 2018, operational and support personnel would more than double from 4 721 to 9 522, and the number of units would increase from 28 to 54.

Public order numbers have indeed grown, albeit modestly. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, in March 2021 the number stood at 6 324, a rise of 34% from 2014. And the number of units has expanded to 49. Despite these increases, police were still overwhelmed when responding to the recent unrest.

For those who believe that South Africa should invest in more public order police, this is a most inconvenient time to do so. Faced with severe fiscal constraints, the government is cutting the budgets of many departments, including the SAPS.

Since March 2014 when SAPS employed 194 852 people, personnel numbers have declined by 7%. They are set to drop by a further 10% from the current 181 344 to 162 945 in 2023/24. Of these, roughly 130 000 will be police officers, with the balance being administrative or other support personnel.

Given the country’s long-standing high violent crime rates, public and political pressure is focused on policing crime, not public violence. Data analysed by the Institute for Security Studies shows that SAPS performance has been steadily deteriorating, including when it comes to serious offences such as murder and armed robbery.

Last year the SAPS indicated that it still planned to increase public order police numbers to 7 903, including administrative staff. But considering the budget cuts announced this year, it is now in doubt that funds will be allocated to hiring more personnel and paying for the additional vehicles and equipment they will require.

Ideally, SAPS should have the capacity to perform its public order role effectively, including protecting the right to peaceful protest and responding to violence and crime associated with gatherings. But South Africa cannot reasonably maintain a substantial public order policing capacity on the assumption that police will have to deal with insurrection.

Rather than increasing public order police personnel and units, the government should focus on three issues. First, reports indicate that personnel and resources weren’t used effectively to quell the July violence. The panel of experts after Marikana called for better use of public order police resources, including an improved command model for large and complex operations. It also said operational commanders need specialised training. Better policing tactics would also help, considering the limited effectiveness of firing rubber bullets at looters.

Second, the SAPS should develop a better auxiliary public order policing model. Currently, the public order training provided to recruits is likely to be of little benefit during unrest situations. The SAPS should instead maintain a reserve capacity for providing support to public order units.

Third, in the event of large-scale public violence, it should be assumed that the military will be mobilised. The implications of this must be fully understood and addressed. For example, section 20(11) of the Defence Act requires that sections of the SANDF be trained and equipped for this purpose. The military is subordinate to the police in domestic operations, and so effective lines of communication and tactical coordination must be established.

The capacity to deploy the military for domestic purposes can be abused by governments with a repressive orientation. But as last month’s events showed, it may sometimes be necessary to protect South Africa’s integrity as a democratic country.

Written by David Bruce, Independent Researcher and Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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