Police clash with striking workers at a mine near Rustenburg. The state has continued responding to dissent with apartheid-style tactics, instead of tackling the social-economic issues, writes the author. Picture: Reuters
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille have, in recent weeks, called for the deployment of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to the Cape Flats to combat crime and gang-related violence. While there have been no formal processes put in place yet to the call backed by many, the ultimate decision, as outlined by the constitution, rests with the president.

Cape Flats residents have come out in support of militarisation - which is most likely out of sheer desperation from the decades of neglect by provincial and national government in addressing the deep-rooted, historical and systemic issues on the Cape Flats that lead to violence, crime and gangsterism.

The call for militarisation sparked debate, with many critiquing it as dangerous and highlighting valid concerns with regard to deploying the military to Cape Town’s already volatile townships as a solution to solve crime and gang-related violence.

One such concern is South Africa’s painful history of military presence in townships; a history that my mother’s generation sorely remembers. During the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa was a militarised state with the apartheid regime being heavily reliant on the armed forces to maintain control and squash any form of resistance. By the 1980s, the armed forces had occupied townships in the hopes of generating fear among black people. The residual effects of South Africa’s violent past are still evident and pervasive, with many black South Africans still able to vividly recall the trauma and violent nature of life under apartheid, largely due to the presence of the military in communities.

Another concern is the questionable reform that SANDF has undergone since the transition from apartheid to democracy. The manner in which the police respond in trying situations is telling, with apartheid-era tactics often used. The 2012 Marikana massacre is one such horrific moment that speaks to South Africa’s disintegration into a police state. It was one of the most painful moments in South Africa’s history, signifying the continued disregard for black lives under the racist capitalist status quo, where exploited workers were killed for fighting for their intrinsic right to human dignity - all this under a so-called “democracy”.

If the police as a state apparatus is being used to carry out these acts in pursuit of repression, how can we trust the SANDF won’t follow suit?

The recurring theme of the state using its institutions (such as the defence force) and deploying them to spaces of dissent and struggle is one such occurrence that is not only problematic but deeply concerning as the current political climate continues on a path of turbulence.

In recent years, universities have become hotbeds of political consciousness with conversations around free decolonised education and institutionalised oppression taking centre stage. We are witnessing increased militarisation to silence student movements and create environments of fear - another apartheid-era tactic.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology was surrounded with barbed wire and private security. Last week, the University of Cape Town resembled a war zone. Universities across the country have resorted to militarisation (both private and “state-sponsored”) in attempts to quell disruption.

It is these measures that must be strongly interrogated. How is deploying the armed forces an option to solve the legitimate socio-economic and political issues that the most marginalised are faced with?

In a country that continues to be heralded as “progressive”, it is these authoritarian-like responses that make us believe otherwise.

The mere presence of the security forces (including the police and private security) on university campuses nationwide have exacerbated violence on defenceless and unarmed students. In fact, armed forces have themselves been perpetrators of sexual violence.

Our continued disregard for poor black lives is sordid and indicative in how we respond to the legitimate cries of the most marginalised.

How is the military going to solve systemic issues like economic marginalisation, dispossession, poverty, landlessness, displacement, gender-based violence as well as the essential bread-and-butter issues on the Flats?

How is militarisation going to help us confront the trauma of our past? A trauma that ripped communities and families apart, a trauma that disrupted our collective sense of belonging and identity, and a trauma that has everlasting psychological effects that still haunt us.

Militarisation in response to high levels of crime has largely failed in South America with countries like Brazil, Columbia and Mexico witnessing increased levels of violence and larger networks of corruption, including law enforcement agencies which, in fact, work with gangs.

The SANDF cannot become the solution in response to the largely ineffective, politicised, corrupt and mismanaged police apparatus in South Africa.

Just last year, a top cop (Colonel Chris Lodewyk Prinsloo) was sentenced to 18 years in jail for selling an estimated R9million of lethal illegal weapons and ammunition to Cape Flats gang lords.

Cape Town remains a deeply segregated city, with the rich living in bubbles of comfort and opulence and the poor stuck in unending cycles of poverty, violence and dehumanisation.

This is because of the decades of social engineering and apartheid spatial legacies that we have yet to address.

Hence, it is bizarre that we can even consider resorting to strong-arm tactics, such as deploying the SANDF, as opposed to dealing with the deep-seated issues that communities on the Cape Flats are facing?

* Jodi Williams is the project officer for communications and advocacy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus