Nobody should die fighting for basic rights
We don’t need martyrs whose claim to fame is that they were shot and killed during service delivery protests, says Makudu Sefara.
Johannesburg - The police in Gauteng sought to send one strong message to South Africans who are increasingly impatient, fearful and distrustful of the police: there’s only so much the cops can do to quell a restless nation.
At a media conference in Gauteng, acting provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Lesetja Mothiba announced: “The police in Gauteng have in the last three months had to deal with 569 protest marches, of which 122 were violent. They are stretching our resources to the limit.” This follows commissioner Riah Phiyega’s announcement last week in Relela, Limpopo, that the police had handled about 1 800 protests, which were increasingly becoming violent.
It is one thing to stretch to the limit a resource that is used well and one that is effective, but quite another if that resource is a bunch of, well, let’s not use Minister Fikile Mbalula’s parlance, but people who are ill-equipped and unskilled on how to manage public protests.
This is important to understand why what is supposed to be a simple protest, a constitutional right, could lead to unnecessary loss of life. Or the creation of martyrs where none are needed.
Mothiba’s choice of words is critical. He did not say that police did not know how to control crowds. They are just not coping with the volume. But, a few years ago, Phiyega told Parliament that the police were just fumbling their way through crowd control.
In the spring of 2012, shortly after the Marikana massacre, Phiyega told Parliment that public order policing was not a priority because there was relative stability in the country.
“It is only in the wake of the new protests that crowd management training is once more coming to the fore,” her briefing documents handed to the police portfolio committee explained.
Last month, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa insisted that officers were well trained and that training had been benchmarked with some of the developed nations of the world.
So, you may ask, are the police well trained, as Mthethwa claims, or are they woefully unprepared, as Phiyega says?
Or did police training change from being almost absent 16 months ago to being in line with the best in the world now? Such competence…
Well, at an SA Police Union central executive committee meeting, union boss Mpho Kwinika was unequivocal: “Members of the police force lack the required skills to handle public violence.”
Truth is, Marikana was a failure in crowd control. Ditto the Andries Tatane debacle. The latest incidents in Relela were also a failure in crowd control. So was the needless killing of four in Mothutlung, and others in Durban Deep, south of Joburg.
Now, why should the families of the deceased in Sebokeng, Relela, Mothutlung and elsewhere accept that their dearly departed were mere collateral damage? Should we not expect more from our police?
Leadership is about anticipation, renowned author John C Maxwell teaches. Anticipation of your competitors’ moves, anticipation of challenges to your business or society.
And, sometimes, reacting to situations is as important as planning. The police commissioner and her team ought to anticipate and react to protests with the requisite speed and precision a police service of our size should. It is unacceptable that, on the cusp of our celebration of 20 years of freedom, so many young people should be dying. We have Hector Pieterson, Onkgopotse Tiro and many others who died in the battle for democracy. We don’t need martyrs whose claim to fame is that they were shot and killed during service delivery protests. Though trite, I must say this is absolutely unnecessary.
I elect here not to delve into the reasons our politicians are failing communities. After all, the tragicomedy that is the ill-fated DA-Agang merger seems as impotent as the police in responding to the flames of fury, as some dubbed the protests. And the ANC seems helpless because the communities are up in arms against it, anyway. The underlying socio-economic challenges must of course be addressed – but that is a column for another day.
What we must not accept is a police force that has resigned itself to failure. A force that is unsure whether it is woefully unprepared to handle protests or if it is failing because of the sheer volume of protests.
Leadership 101 suggests that if the diagnosis of the problem is wrong, we can’t possibly get the prognosis right.
And, in any case, when the police see that they are under siege because politicians aren’t doing their work, they must do much more than merely blurt out the number of protest marches that have taken place in the country.
They must tell us what concrete steps are being taken, together with their political masters, to ensure that police don’t gift us another Marikana, Relela, Mothutlung, Sebokeng or Bronkhorstspruit. This is the least we expect from those whose responsibility it is to serve and protect us.
* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak