A panel of experts reporting into policing and crowd management in South Africa has recommended that public order policing (POP) should fall under one command centre to help avoid the use of rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades to deal with protesters.
“POP units should fall under one command at a national level so they all form part of the national public order policing unit that is provided for in section 17 of the SAPS Act (No 68 of 1995).
“This would mean they would generally be deployed at the request and in support of a provincial commissioner, but that the head of POP, acting on behalf of the national commissioner, would be able to ensure their operational readiness as a specialised unit is maintained in a consistent manner in line with section 17 (2) of the Act.”
According to Institute for Security Studies expert Gareth Newham the report was released at an important time following a long decline in policing and public safety.
“The SAPS is facing significant organisational challenges that prevent the most effective use of its current R101 billion budget.
“Most notable is the declining ability to bring to justice the perpetrators of violent crimes like murder, robbery and rape. In addition, SAPS are increasingly confronted by a large and growing number of public order incidents each year.”
The panel was established following the Marikana massacre in August 2012, which resulted in the death of 34 miners after police fired live ammunition at the protesting workers.
Following the outcry and outrage at the police brutality, the Marikana Commission report had recommended that a panel of experts be established to clearly define an approach to police safety when faced with armed crowds.
However, the panel said the current main cause of fatalities and injuries in crowd management incidents was the use of less-lethal-weapons, including, in particular, rubber bullets, but also teargas and stun grenades.
“The death of Andries Tatane was primarily the result of rubber bullets fired at close range”
The panel added a cause for concern was evidence that there were also a number of children among fatalities of use of force by police in crowd management incidents.
The death of an 11-year-old Karabo Khumalo who died in 2017 after allegedly being shot in the head with a rubber bullet during a protest in Bela-Bela in Limpopo, the 16-year-old boy who was killed in Standerton allegedly as a result of the use of live ammunition in May 2017, and the the death of two-month old Jaydeen Khoza in the eThekwini metropolitan as a result of asphyxiation caused by teargas on May 2017, were concerns for the panel.
“This motivates that POP members, or others who are using these weapons, should take additional care when using them to ensure young children are not adversely affected by them. Elderly people may also be especially vulnerable to adverse effects as a result of the use of weapons.
“The risks to children and elderly people may be accentuated by the problems of accuracy associated with the use of rubber bullets and the inherently indiscriminate nature of weapons such as teargas and stun grenades,” stated the panel.
The panel asserted there was a need for recognition within the SAPS that all of these weapons have potential lethal consequences, including potential to cause serious injury and permanent disability, and in some instances death, as in the case of Tatane.
It said it was also concerned about what appeared to be a lack of control over the use of weapons and that the indiscriminate nature of some of these weapons was not taken seriously enough by police in many instances.
The panel also recommended that crowd management operations must be led by commanders with recent or relevant training and public order policing experience.
“Throughout the event at Marikana the SAPS followed an approach that undermined its own ability to manage the situation effectively. Despite the fact that it was dealing with a crowd situation the SAPS gave control of leading, and planning, for the operation to SAPS members who had no recent experience in crowd management and were not familiar with the relevant organisational directive (at the time this was Standing Order 262).”
The report also stated it was necessary for the POP units to ensure situations of tension and confrontation were managed without unnecessarily the potential for violence, and that where violence takes place, the response of the police serves to de-escalate rather than exacerbate it.
“In this part is to ensure that, even where force is used against individuals, POP units do not unnecessarily create antagonism between themselves and non-violent crowd members. This is intended to reduce the potential for escalation of conflict”.
Some of the reasons for the large number of fatalities in Marikana was the use of 5 rifles automatic fire. The panel recommended that this should be taken one step further and that the prohibition against the use of 5 rifles, and other weapons capable of automatic fire, in crowd management should be formalised in regulations issued by the Minister of Police.
Police Minister Bheki Cele released the report only this week after it was handed over to him in 2018. He said in a statement the use of rubber bullets as a means of crowd control management was being looked into urgently by the relevant structures.
“The recent killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba, a bystander during student protests in Johannesburg, has once again cast a spotlight on the use of rubber bullets,” said Cele.
Cele added he wanted to assure the nation the POP units were better resourced today than they have ever been before.
“A total of nearly R598 million has been spent towards resourcing and capacitating the POP unit. The units are equipped with tools of trade such as two-way radios, loud hailers, video cameras and PA systems for ease of communication during operations.”