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Military solutions to political problems?

“You see”, said the Congolese security guard to me, “in my country the government would order in the army, they would shoot these people dead”. He paused and then earnestly added, “…but this (South Africa) is a democratic country”.

What I had thought was an argument for wide-ranging military intervention to deal with the wave of xenophobic violence that has swept across Gauteng and other provinces was in fact a call for an informed, measured response. It is not that the threat of violence does not fill this Congolese national with a deep sense of unease. As if to make the point his Burundian colleague chipped in that twelve hours previously they had been told by one of their South African colleagues that, “You must go, we will finish you all off if you resist”.

The man reportedly said this laughing and pointing at the news image of a foreign national engulfed in flames. He also told of his South African neighbour with whom he had often sat drinking from the same crate of beer, the man casually informed him in the corridor outside their apartments, that his “time is up”. This was in Cape Town, 1 200 kilometres from the scene of the most brutal attacks. What started as a local problem is now a national concern.

With thousands of displaced people and the threat of violence spreading to other parts of South Africa we cannot spend all our time debating causes — our focus must for the next few weeks focus on consequence. What can be done to protect fellow Africans who are our brothers and sisters? How we can we de-escalate violence? How do we prevent this from repeating itself in communities across the country? Can we reintegrate communities and sustain peace?

While President Thabo Mbeki has decried the violence, his plan of action has been less than profound, announcing a panel to look at the root causes of the violence. Indeed, inequality, poverty, simmering xenophobia, poor service delivery, corruption, greed and an ineffective regional foreign policy should no doubt all be fingered by this panel if it is serious about its work.

However, one would have hoped that his cabinet Ministers, multitude of advisors in the Presidency and the army of consultants which the state employs could have told him this. While the state may believe it has identified a ‘third force’ behind the violence, the truth is that if such rogue elements exist, they have merely flicked a match into a veld that observers have long warned is ready to burn.

On Wednesday night Mbeki, following a request by the South African Police Service, called in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist in quelling the violence. This follows a chorus of suggestions that the Commander-in-chief should use the power designated to him by the Constitution and the 2002 Defence Act to do so. Supporters of this include African National Congress (ANC) Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, the opposition Democratic Alliance, the ANC Youth League, the South African Human Rights Commission and trade union leaders.

It should be surprising that so many people, including some reasonable leaders, jumped at the most radical solution given the obvious sensitivity of troop deployment. Few can forget the brutal role the military played in suppressing opposition to apartheid during the 1980’s and 1990’s when the military effectively managed the state. An important difference is that any potential military brutality is no longer legitimised by an apartheid era state of emergency.

However, while the loss of one life is too many, requiring an urgent response, one has to ask if all non-military avenues have been exhausted such as bringing in the 20,000 strong police reserve force to supplement the 130,000 members of the SAPS? It is apparent that the police are taking strain but why is that the acting National Commissioner of Police has not been asked by Parliamentarians to come and present his plans so that these could be interrogated by the politicians? Could it be that the high-levels of crime and leadership failure in the SAPS, including the suspension of National Commissioner Jackie Selebi, has led to a quiet crisis of confidence of the public in the civilian police service?

The deployment of the military will of course have to take place in co-operation with the police. The military will act in a supportive role, something which they have done on a number of occasions since 1996 in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the Western Cape and in various operations aimed at tackling crime. This deployment is unique given that it is in response to widespread conflict in urban areas. While military support such as helicopters and equipment will assist the police, it remains to be seen if this will include actual troop deployment in townships and cities. This is the role that the military is least suited for, with little experience in using minimum force and so-called ‘public order policing’, they will enter volatile high-density communities with rifles containing live ammunition, not the police issue rubber bullets.

For the army to play this role many argue, that the situation will have to worsen to the extent that the police are genuinely overwhelmed. As the police have not suggested that this is the case at present, it would be wise for the military deployment to be limited, time-bound and exclusively supportive of the SAPS.

The President is now required to inform Parliament promptly of certain details such as the reason for deployment, place, number of people involved and the period for which the force is expected to be deployed. Importantly Parliament may, within seven days of receiving such information, amend, substitute or terminate such deployment.

It is imperative that Parliament now fulfils this role in exercising oversight over the executive in this process. This should include a requirement for the Ministers of Safety and Security and Defence to regularly brief Parliament. This is an important democratic precedent that could be established during this process. In addition it is clear that that these ministers, together with the Minister of Intelligence, should urgently be called to brief Parliament on their plans to deal with violence.

If anything the levels of violence and apparent poor preparedness suggest a lack of co-ordination between Intelligence and Safety and Security. If South Africa spends more on domestic intelligence than on the ‘Chapter Nine’ institutions established to promote constitutional democracy, one must question what those resources are utilised for given the apparent failure of intelligence to warn the State of the simmering discontent.

One could imagine that newly sworn in ANC MP Kgalema Motlanthe, also deputy leader of his party, could lead the ANC majority in Parliament in playing such an oversight role. Equally, he and his colleagues should be calling the Ministers of Home Affairs, Health and Social Development to come and account as to how they are shaping up in their response to the human aspect of the crisis and asking civil society its opinions on these issues.

There is nothing to suggest that the short-term solution to the current crisis cannot be both political and democratic. If anything the role of the military is only to support such initiatives. Our political leaders must keep this in sharp focus as they seek to stem the hatred and xenophobic violence. Thereafter the real work of dealing with the root causes begins.