A bold campaign has been launched by Gun Free South Africa and amandla.mobi calling on the minister of police, Nkosinathi Nhleko, and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega to disarm the police’s crowd-control units of their deadly R5 rifles.
The R5 assault rifle is based on the Israeli Galil, which was inspired by the AK-47. It was introduced into service with the South African police in the late 1980s, at the height of police oppression during apartheid.
Both organisations, find it unacceptable that a public institution tasked with “creating a safe and secure environment for all the people in South Africa”, continues to use these rifles in crowd-control situations, “despite the fact that the use of R5s go against international public order policing norms”. This follows a shocking report from the Farlam Commission at which an expert witness, Cees de Rover, noted that the use of R5s was “extremely dangerous and violated international policing best practice” because a bullet fired from an R5 rifle will travel for up to 600m after it is fired — increasing the risk of injuring bystanders. Also, because bullets from these rifles disintegrate, it is extremely difficult to holding individual officers accountable when the rifles are used to shoot at a crowd.
Why are these rifles being used?
An objective of the Policy and Guidelines: Policing of Public Protests, Gatherings and Major Events (2013) is to “provide a framework and facilitate the development of appropriate guidelines on the use of force in relation to crowd control and management that adheres to internationally accepted standards”. It also sets out interventions for crowd control, an attempt to regulate the use of force by the police, which should be appropriate to the threat faced. It is hard to even imagine protesters posing any kind of threat that warrants the use of R5s, rifles which fire 600 to 750 rounds a minute.
How prevalent is police brutality in public-order policing?
Most cases of police brutality involve public-order policing. Parliament’s research unit notes that:
* Figures from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate show that “the number of complaints of brutality by the police has soared since 2007… most of the complaints were filed against members of the unit for public-order policing, which is in charge of crowd control during protest”.
* According to the Institute for Security Studies, “In 2011/12 POP officers had to respond to 33 public-order-related incidents a day, of which at least three were violent.
* Former police minister Nathi Mthethwa reported that there were more than 13 000 protests in 2013 in which police were involved and 1 882 of them were violent protests. In 2014, City Press reported that “SAPS this year, on average, allegedly shot and killed one protester every four days in South Africa”.
No plans to stop the use of lethal force against protestors
Despite the known levels of lethal force in crowd-control situations, it is clear that the government has no plans to stop. Just last year South Africa, along with eight other countries (China, Cuba, India, Kenya, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Venezuela and Vietnam) voted against the adoption of a United Nations resolution to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests. Resolution 25/38, which was adopted by the Human Rights Council on April 11 2014 “urges all States to avoid using force during peaceful protests and to ensure that, where force is absolutely necessary, no one is subject to excessive or indiscriminate use of force”. The resolution also “notes that lethal force may only be used as a last resort to protect against an imminent threat to life and that it may not be used merely to disperse a gathering”, furthermore affirming “that nothing can ever justify the indiscriminate use of lethal force against a crowd, which is unlawful under international human-rights law”.
The right to protest
The right to protest, linked to the right to freedom of expression, is considered a vital right in any democracy. South Africa, through its Constitution, has affirmed the importance of this right, which in Chapter 2, section 17 provides that: “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed to assemble, demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions.”
It is a means through which people can voice their dissatisfaction, particularly when formal participatory methods fail, which they often do in South Africa. Protests are thus a means through which communities attempt to reclaim legitimacy as role-players in the development of their communities, seeking material improvements to their lives and are usually resorted to because attempts to engage the state at various levels have failed.
Yet protests are increasingly seen as threats to public order, rather than the exercising of a democratic right, with dissent and protest being criminalised.
But even when protestors disregard the responsibilities inherent in the right to protest, supressing violent protests with lethal military weapons both violates global policing norms and directly contradicts South Africa’s blueprint for development, the National Development Plan, which calls for a professional and demilitarised police service.
It is within this context that the use of R5s for crowd control must be banned. They not only threaten the lives of both protestors and bystanders, but also perpetuate a long history of lethal violence by South Africa’s police officers against citizens, a deplorable relic of apartheid 21 years into democracy.