By Mary de Haas
In 1994 the democratically-elected government prioritised the demilitarisation of the police service, the most visible face of apartheid repression and brutality. Its military ranks were also prime symbols of apartheid authoritarianism.
Military terms (for example, generals) were done away with and replaced by those used in democracies (e.g. commissioners, superintendents). The emphasis was on community involvement in policing, with the police attending human rights workshops.
However, with the advent of the Zuma government, re-militarisation was introduced by then National Commissioner Bheki Cele, probably at the urging of the old, apartheid police die-hards. As in governance generally, the faltering post-1994 progress was marked in policing with increasing disregard for constitutional rights. A marked upsurge in brutality accompanied a noticeable decrease in accountability.
The context was one of increasing authoritarianism, accompanied by marked politicisation of policing. The brutal methods of apartheid police, including torture and killings, had continued post-1994, but they were given full rein with the re-militarisation and the politicisation – including with a plethora of appointments of ill-trained political cadres to the senior ranks, which had ballooned.
Constitutional bodies – the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) and the Civilian Secretariat for Police – have failed to exercise their oversight functions adequately, as they are beholden to the same ministry that permits abuses.
Depending on management, some Public Order Policing units had done good work in protecting communities in the 1990s. As they became part of militarised Operational Response Units, the training and management deteriorated badly, and most now have a reputation for terrorising vulnerable communities by kicking doors or rural homes open at night, and abusing, torturing and even killing residents.
Some wear balaclavas while doing so. A prime offender is the Tactical Response Unit, described in a 2009 media report as the “brainchild” of the national commissioner (Cele), with “platoons” receiving only eight weeks of training with the most lethal of weapons.
Another report in 2011 exposed heavy-handed, military-type training of SAPS recruits, to supposedly toughen them up by using brutal methods. Unsurprisingly, it was these paramilitary units – especially the TRT – which featured prominently in the Marikana massacre of 2012, in which 34 miners died.
This brutality pervades other arms of policing, as when detectives badly abuse suspects to extract “confessions” – a tactic which ruins criminal cases in court. This paramilitary emphasis went hand in hand with sinister, opaque moves in intelligence services, including the deployment of recruits to hone their intelligence skills in other BRICS countries, reportedly to serve the interest of then president Zuma.
Police intelligence, a key to effective crime fighting, is racked with extremely serious problems, comprising as it does the worst of apartheid-era operatives, corrupt new-order political cadres, and representatives of old and new structures striving to do their jobs professionally thwarted by crooked colleagues and bad management.
These intelligence-arm problems beset the whole SAPS, which has become a nepotistic employment network for relatives, friends and political cadres, including at management levels.
Its politicisation, which is now evident in factional ANC battles, poses a security threat, as it did prior to the April 1994 elections when there was speculation about a possible coup emanating from the police, most of whom did not support late former president FW de Klerk.
The SAPS currently operates above the law since it has dismissed hundreds of competent, experienced members who strive to do their jobs well, but have voiced concerns about corruption and nepotism.
Most decent members dare not speak out, despite having to risk their own and colleagues’ lives because of bad management, since they fear dismissal. SAPS management ignores arbitration findings, and even court orders, and has told some members it has unlimited funds to fight those who have lost their jobs in court. Unlike well-trained military, paramilitary policing units lack discipline and proper management.
The Panel of Experts on Policing and Crowd management, appointed following the recommendations of the Farlam Commission into events at Marikana, confirmed the systemic problems in the SAPS, and the lack of adequate training in crowd control of the units given that responsibility.
This lack of training is frequently manifest in their handling of protest action, which may result in serious injuries and even deaths, by the routine use of weapons such as rubber bullets. Standard methods, such as water cannons, are usually absent, including during the violence and looting in July 2021 (apparently not maintained).
What is delaying this crying need for demilitarisation and professionalisation? The answer may lie in recent, eyebrow-raising BBC footage of our police minister surrounded by a mini-platoon of heavily-armed paramilitary members.
Having set the system in motion, he seems wedded to it. Presumably, for political reasons, the head of state panders to him. Unfortunately, Parliament – the voice of the people – does as well.
* De Haas Honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Law and a member of the Navi Pillay Research Group focusing on justice and human rights