If politicians engaged more with desperate communities, police could engage less, write Daily News reporters Lee Rondganger, Lyse Comins and Nosipho Mngoma.
Durban - Fury at government failure, misdirected at untrained police officers, is among the causes of police failure in managing violent protests.
Following Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s promise to boost the service’s public order policing units to cope with the high number of service delivery protests around the country, analysts have called for improved training and for the government to do its job in serving citizens.
Analysts also raised concerns about systemic problems in policing and the constant stress policemen face due to being repeatedly caught in the middle of violent protests, where they have to incur the anger of protesters – anger really aimed at the government’s inability to deliver.
Mthethwa recently placed full-page adverts in major newspapers, including the Daily News, to urge people to “protest peacefully”.
He said that between November and last month the SAPS monitored 2 965 protest actions of which 2 286 were peaceful.
The rest (679), Mthethwa said, were characterised by unrest and destruction.
“As a government that upholds freedom of expression, we recognise the right to express grievance through public protests.
“We, however, reiterate a call to all members of society to refrain from carrying dangerous weapons during public protests.
“We urge them to protest peacefully without any damage to property, attacks on innocent people and police members,” he said.
He said initiatives to improve public order policing included standardising training for public order policing units and ensuring all new SAPS recruits were trained in basic public order policing.
He said there were 4 700 public order police officers countrywide and plans to increase this force to 9 000.
Criminologist Irvin Kinnes who recently published a report called “Public Order Policing in South Africa: Capacity, Constraints and Capabilities”, believes that if mayors and councillors were more involved with their communities, there would be less need for public order policing to intervene in demonstrations.
His report found that in Durban there were only six public order police officers for every 1 000 demonstrators.
He said mayors and councillors should be made to accept responsibility for demonstrations becoming violent when they could have averted them in the first place by accepting memorandums.
Based on a series of interviews with operational public order officers from six units in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape and police management last year, the report recommends that the SAPS public order policing should revert to being a national division.
Kinnes’s report said while the Pretoria public policing unit had 1 050 members in 1997, today there were 260 operational officers on duty.
In Pietermaritzburg, while everyone had body armour, the Nyalas’ steering boxes and doors did not work and while the unit had speed fencing, it did not have the truck required to move it.
The report’s recommendations include: better training of marshals at marches; the recruitment of more women “to counter machismo and bravado”; ongoing training; regular fitness tests and increased resources.
Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Johan Burger agreed there were many systemic problems in the police service that were hampering their effectiveness in dealing with protests.
Among these were the quality of training and recruitment; command and control structures; leadership, and the “almost dysfunctional” crime intelligence unit, Burger said.
He welcomed the move to boost the number of officers in the public order policing units but asked why it was taking so long.
“They don’t yet have sufficient numbers and have to reply on support from police stations. That is problematic because they are not trained or sufficiently trained and it creates all sorts of problems in terms of command and control,” Burger said.
“The police are called in when demonstrators go on a rampage and start destroying stuff,” he said, “and then they take out their frustration on the police and it creates a confrontational situation.
“It’s an almost impossible situation and sometimes the police get it wrong.
“Sometimes they use force and the wrong ammunition and people die,” Burger said.
“We don’t fully accept the continual stress they are put under with the constant protest action. They have to maintain constraint, but there is little constraint by the protesters,” he said.
He said the police were well trained to withstand the provocation, but if it continued unabated, individuals might lose control.
“Let’s fix the police and give them the numbers, but let’s also understand we need to deal with these problems properly – let’s fix the poor service delivery,” Burger said.
He said he believed the police were capable of maintaining law and order during the upcoming elections.
“One thing the police have been able to do well is to provide security during local and national elections and they will be able to provide this service this time too, but there will be pressure.”
KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas said protests were “complex”, but people generally protested when the government failed to keep its promises.
“If a councillor is accessible and is making things happen, we probably would not be seeing the number of service delivery protests we are seeing,” De Haas said.
She called on the police to be proactive. “Crime intelligence needs to have their ears to the ground to identify tensions and potential threats or conflict before it happens.”
University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society director, Patrick Bond, said the rate of protests in South Africa had been “extremely high” since the late 1990s.
“The rate of violent protest nearly doubled from 2012 to last year, as desperation seems to have increased and as the police have much more regularly shot protesters, even if they begin in a peaceful way, as happened last month at Mothutlung,” Bond said.
He said a national emergency task team should be sent to rescue municipalities identified as incapable, corrupt or bankrupt.
“This happened in Mothutlung when Water Minister (Edna) Molewa solved the immediate crisis last month by using national finance and expertise – although, tellingly, four corpses and very bad publicity were what seemed to be necessary to get her to drive the 40km from her office,” Bond said.
He said Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan should establish a fund to support such urgent requirements.
Bond said the murder of protesters – with either live ammunition or what are often lethal rubber bullets – continued unabated.
“The police are extremely good at protecting politicians and the property of wealthy people.
“In the old days, there was an occasional police officer – like Gregory Rockman – who would blow the whistle against working-class black cops killing working-class black citizens.
“We need that kind of principled perspective again,” Bond said.
He said that as elections drew near it was likely there would be “more creative and perhaps more effective and hopefully less fiery and violent protests”.
“In meetings I’ve been to, residents point out that non-violent civil disobedience in the Gandhian mode used on occasion in Cape Town last winter (the flinging of faeces on the N2 and even on the concourse at the airport and steps of the provincial parliament) drew attention to the cause and won quick results in the form of improved sanitation,” Bond said.
“The most impressive protest along these lines in Durban was Occupy Umlazi in mid-2012, which was a powerful statement of shack settlement creativity, which won major improvements after residents cleared a site next to the municipal councillor’s office and camped there for several weeks.”
Abahlali Basemjondolo (the shackdwellers’ movement) vice-president, Lindela Figlan, said some members saw no reason to vote.
“Voting someone into government just gives them power to oppress and exploit us,” he said. “If the government were to implement the Freedom Charter, which calls for the benefit of all and not for a select few to keep getting fatter, we would not have to act in such a manner.”