Commandos threaten to turn to crime

By Jonathan Ancer Time of article published Feb 17, 2005

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They've been trained as soldiers, but have been used to help the police fight crime, now some of them are threatening to turn their military skills to crime.

Commando members across the country are up in arms at last week's announcement by Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota that the closure of 183 commando units by 2009 was well under way - 17 will be closed by the end of March and 55 units disbanded next year.

Two years ago President Thabo Mbeki announced that commandos, units of part-time soldiers mainly based in rural areas throughout the country, would be disbanded - a move that sparked widespread concern from farmers and security analysts that a vacuum would be left in rural security.

Lekota has insisted that police will be able to fill the gap, saying the plan to shut down the commandos is driven partly to counter racist elements within some of commandos, but also because of constitutional issues.

Six commando members, five privates and an officer, at Randfontein HQ, who refused to be identified for fear of victimisation, claimed this week that they would prey on the community they have been risking their lives to protect, if the government abandoned them.

"I know where to get an AK-47. I know how to do missions. I can pull a big one today. It's the truth. Cash-in-transits, here I come," a part-time soldier said.

Another said the commandos felt betrayed because they had devoted themselves to the army but the government was now treating them "like dirty rubbish".

"I have given them 18 years of my life - first in the permanent force, and now in the commandos - and I will walk away with nothing.

"Nobody wants to employ a 39-year-old ex-soldier. They have wasted my life. I've got a family and I must support them. There's nothing I can do except crime."

Sam Mkwanazi, a spokesperson for the ministry of defence, declined to comment.

Len le Roux, head of the defence sector programme of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said the plan to close commandos had come as a surprise to everybody.

The ISS has made submissions to the government, requesting it to reconsider the decision.

"The commandos are a territorial reserve of the defence force. They perform a military role during war, and contribute to safety and security during peace," Le Roux said.

"With the crime situation in the country, the commandos have played a crucial role in support of the police. They patrol areas, put up roadblocks and have an extensive communication system making them able to react quickly," Le Roux said.

He pointed out that in areas in Gauteng where the commandos were in the process of closing, the police had asked neighbouring commandos to assist with these functions because the police lacked the capacity.

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