Sending the army to Cape Town a tricky move

Soldiers made their debut on the streets of Manenberg and Hanover Park as Operation Prosper finally got under way in Cape Town on July 18 2019.
Soldiers made their debut on the streets of Manenberg and Hanover Park as Operation Prosper finally got under way in Cape Town on July 18 2019.
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

After the latest spate of murders on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, the government has decided to deploy the army.

Cape Town is ranked among the most violent cities in the world. However, the use of the military to perform law and order functions raises several problems - many of which have long-term implications.

The biggest problem is that armies are trained for warfare and to use maximum force.

This is very different from the law and order duties of the police. The principle of minimum force is alien to a soldier.

As SA National Defence Force General Solly Shoke recently stated: The army is trained to "skiet and donner" (shoot and beat up), not for crime prevention.

The government appears to have had little choice but to use the military as the police have been unable to protect citizens against violent criminals. A staggering 43 people were killed in Cape Town recently.

But studies show that using the military in an internal role can exacerbate conflict, rather than resolve it.

  •  Soldiers are trained to kill

Military training and culture instils in soldiers a particular disposition. Aggressiveness and an emotional distancing from the "enemy" enables soldiers to deal with life-or-death situations and perform acts that are otherwise considered abhorrent in civilian society.

Nor can the military identity of a soldier - who carries a machine gun rather than a pistol - be switched off by merely placing them in policing roles, without some degree of resocialisation and training. The delay in the deployment of the military, announced by police minister Bheki Cele last Thursday, relates to this.

The soldiers need to receive proper training on police rules and conduct before they can be deployed. The soldiers will be under the command of the police in the crime-fighting operation. And the military is unfamiliar with the terrain, street conditions, public attitudes and reactions of civilians.

The rules of engagement need to be very clear to avoid the use of excessive force, or the violation of human rights.

And, such use of force should be of a limited duration, and only employed as a protective measure.

  • Threat of militarisation

The last thing SA needs is a return to what happened during the apartheid era, when citizens were at the mercy of the state security forces, with hardly any civilian oversight and accountability.

On the one hand, failure to intervene by the state may result in citizens forming their own armed groups that offer them security and protection. Any increase in vigilantism could further escalate violence, as citizens take the law into their own hands.

At the political level, the involvement of the army in law and order duties can result in them being afforded extraordinary powers to institute violence and repression. Where there is a culture of resorting to the use of force to restore peace and security, it undermines the need to seek other alternatives.

  • A constabulary force

Perhaps it is time to consider whether SA needs a constabulary force, or gendarmerie. These are hybrid police-military forces more suited for public order functions.

Countries that have established constabularies include Jamaica, Spain (Guardia Civil), France (Gendarmerie) and Italy (Carabinieri). The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the National Guard in the US have been set up on a similar basis.

They are widely used in internal security and peacekeeping operations due to their ability to deal with threats posed by armed groups and other forms of violence that the police are unable to deal with.

- Heinecken is the author of a forthcoming book, "South Africa's post-apartheid military: Lost in Transition and Transformation", to be published shortly by UCT/Juta and Springer Press

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