By Christopher McMichael

Last week, a fully armed contingent of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers were enrolled to perform guard duties at the new Khayelitsha district hospital. The reason for the deployment of combat-ready troops in a civilian environment? To patrol a silent protest by 50 members of the Khayelitsha Development Forum. As constitutional law expert Pierre De Vos has pointed out, such an action may violate constitutional restrictions which reserve the internal usage of the SANDF for exceptional circumstances.

Not only does the deployment of the SANDF to quell internal protest bear disturbing continuities with the apartheid government’s practices but it is also paralleled by efforts to re-militarise the SAPS. In a country in which only twenty years ago the police were the internal extension of the then South African Defence Force using unrestricted counter-insurgency operations and the notorious death squads associated with the CCB and Vlakplaas throughout cities and townships, maintaining a clear and strict demarcation between the police service and the military force is essential to the protection of democracy.

However, the Khayelitsha incident is by no means unique. Joint operations between the police and military are becoming increasingly more commonplace. Prior to his suspension, Bheki Cele insisted that the need to ensure mutual respect between members of the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force, who are on a regular basis involved in joint operations, was one of the reasons behind the reintroduction of military ranks within the SAPS. In turn, the SANDF lists such ‘interoperable’ dual operations with the SAPS and other government departments as one of its key areas of focus.

While there is growing evidence that ‘interoperable’ missions are being used to quash increasingly heated community protests, the primary site of joint operations are the intensive security measures which accompany major sporting and political events. At the recent COP17 conference in Durban, the military joined the police in creating a ring of steel around the International Convention Centre, while the World Cup was marked by the largest internal deployment of the SANDF since 1994. Preparations for that event included joint training missions between SAPS elite units, SANDF special forces and SOCOM, the US special command, which among its other ‘sensitive’ missions co-ordinated last year’s execution of Osama Bin Laden. In turn, the SAPS’s much publicised World Cup procurement drive included several items that have been developed and tested in contemporary war zones. These included Israeli-made water cannons, designed for ‘crowd control’ in Gaza, and bomb disposal suits used in Iraq. Fortunately for civilian airspace, complaints from the Civil Aviation Authority prevented efforts to buy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) similar to the drones causing substantive civilian casualties in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. While SAPS management claimed that such equipment is a necessary augmentation of the ‘war on crime’, the origins of much of this technology raise an unsettling question: how far they are willing to pursue this logic of combat?

The public discussion about signs of re-militarisation in South Africa has understandably focused on its disturbing resonances with the dark corners of our recent past. However, this has been accompanied by the importation of international practices and security systems which blur the distinction between civilian policing and urban warfare. For example, SAPS units such as “The Special Task Force” and the new “Tactical Response Team” echo the elite forces used by law enforcement departments throughout the world. These units receive paramilitary training and access to much heavier caliber weaponry and firepower than ordinary police officers. Such elite units can serve legitimate purposes, such as confronting heavily armed criminals who can and sometimes do endanger members of the general public. But the experience of many foreign countries demonstrates that police elites like these they can quickly become forces of internal repression. As evidenced in last year’s clampdowns on the Occupy movement and current ‘pacifications’ in Rio de Janeiro slums, paramilitary police can rapidly be targeted against the public. Indeed, the Gauteng Tactical Response Team has already been implicated in several instances of torture and brutality.

Since the killing of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg last year, the SAPS has promised to modernise its crowd control techniques. This seems an impressive development but much of its new policy is based on training missions conducted with the French police which has in recent years been associated with serious allegations of brutality, excessive use of force and the systemic harassment of North African minorities. Hardly a progressive model to emulate.

There is a further irony in the adoption of Israeli manufactured crowd dispersal equipment due to the obvious parallels between the present occupation of Palestine and apartheid. Through Israel’s booming homeland security industry, equipment tested in Gaza’s open-air bantustans is being imported into domestic policing throughout the world. At the same time, the SANDF appears committed to an increasing presence within the country. Along with taking over border security from the police it is also currently building a urban warfare training ground outside Johannesburg.

These are only a few examples of the increasingly blurred lines between the military and police. The internal use of the military, whether for big events or to intimidate protesters, is accompanied by the militarisation of the police and the increased usage of combat-ready security technology. This is not an exclusively domestic process, but is sustained through transnational policing connection and the wares on sale throughout global security and arms markets. Indeed, Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa proudly highlighted this influence during the announcement of changes to the ranking system: “Police forces around the world are referred to as the Force and their ranks are accordingly linked to such designations.”

This focus on ‘force’ is part of an international move towards increasingly militarised policing through the perpetration of functionally endless ‘wars’ against crime, drugs or terrorism. The local media and academia often present policy brutality and state violence as a brute hangover from the recent past. The offered solution is often that this can be cured through the application of vaguely defined ‘world class’ practices, which may actually legitimate the state’s fascination with finding security and military solutions to social problems and political dissent. Rolling back militarisation requires a change of the institutional culture of the SAPS and reductions of the SANDF’s domestic entanglements rather than a quick resort to dubious ‘international benchmarks’.

Christopher McMichael is currently completing a PhD in Politics at Rhodes University, South Africa. His research focuses on the militarisation and securitisation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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