Out-of-date SAPS tactics may have played a part in looting's spread

25 July 2021 - 00:00 By DAVID BRUCE
That police were overwhelmed as they faced waves of unrest last week raises questions about SAPS public order policing policy.
That police were overwhelmed as they faced waves of unrest last week raises questions about SAPS public order policing policy.
Image: Alaister Russell

Last week's unrest, in which more than 300 people died and billions of rands' worth of damage was done, was in part a direct consequence of SA's attempts to uphold the rule of law, following directly after the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma on the night of July 7.

International experience is that efforts to address elite corruption carry a high political risk. This risk was accentuated in SA, where Zuma's allies include former members of a liberation movement with experience in covert popular mobilisation.

It seems clear that the unrest and looting were to some degree orchestrated, with evidence of this emerging in Durban and other areas of KwaZulu-Natal as well as in Johannesburg and on the East Rand. Reports indicate that the violence was exported from the one province to the other. Groups of people linked to the conspiracy allegedly arrived in Johannesburg from KwaZulu-Natal over Saturday and Sunday, July 10-11, and were then involved in initiating the looting and destruction of malls and other targets.

Questions are being asked about why the intelligence services, including both the State Security Agency and the crime intelligence division of the South African Police Service (SAPS), were unable to anticipate what appears to have been a fairly elaborate conspiracy. There are also questions about to what degree current and former personnel within the intelligence community may have been active in fomenting the violence.

At the same time it is generally acknowledged that what happened ultimately went far beyond what was planned. The conspirators and their sympathisers circulated social media messages spurring people on. Once the looting got going it developed its own momentum. The fact that consumer goods were readily available to be taken, at little risk, was also spontaneously advertised by members of the public circulating countless images and videos of stores being ransacked.

In his address to the nation on Friday July 16, President Cyril Ramaphosa thanked the police. But members of the public and commentators have been highly critical of how the police responded. Linked to suspicions of the intelligence agencies, some have gone so far as to suggest that the police elected to take a hands-off approach, and that the passive role that they allegedly played indicates that they were complicit in the insurrection.

However, the possibility of police complicity in the conspiracy is not a necessary element in understanding police responses. It is apparent, for instance that, by Monday July 12 at least, when the looting had reached tsunami proportions, the police were completely out of their depth. The scale of the looting and violence was far beyond anything the SAPS had ever envisaged it would have to deal with.

The fact that the police elected not to resort to higher levels of force was entirely appropriate. The law does not authorise lethal force in defence of property. Lethal force in crowd situations also runs a very high risk of killing innocent people.

It is apparent, for instance that, by Monday July 12 at least, when the looting had reached tsunami proportions, the police were completely out of their depth

Notwithstanding the enormous damage that has been done by the unrest, the fact that police limited their use of force to rubber bullets was also fortunate in relation to the trajectory of events. A high death toll at the hands of police would have fed directly into the hands of the conspirators, enabling them to mobilise support against the police and the government. Ramaphosa would have been politically isolated, with police brutality, rather than the destabilisation of the country, becoming the key focus of concern.

Though the police were overwhelmed, their responses were in some respects appropriate. At the same time it is evident that their ability to respond to the violence was hampered by out-of-date tactics for responding to public disorder. The Marikana commission report described public order policing as "static" and "set-piece" and offering "very limited options to deal with situations where a crowd are confrontational, organised, mobile and volatile".

The trajectory of the violence in Johannesburg illustrates this. By the afternoon of Sunday July 11, police were involved in confrontations with groups of people in various parts of the city, with some looting also taking place. Public order training, however, only enables police to deal with certain set-piece situations, notably the dismantling of barricades.

Once these tactics prove to be inadequate, police fall back on firing rubber bullets and throwing stun grenades. Videos of police responses to the initial violence on Sunday afternoon in Jeppestown and near Joubert Park in the centre of the city show police firing rubber bullets, while, in the distance, rioters slip away around the corners of side streets.

Rather than helping to contain the violence, it is likely that these kinds of police tactics contribute to its spread. Following riots in London and other UK cities in August 2011, a British government assessment of police responses concluded that "dispersal tactics simply displaced looting" and contributed to "spreading the problem rather than resolving it". British police commanders interviewed after the unrest recognised that "arresting suspects was the only possible response once the looting had started in earnest".

The report of the panel of experts appointed to look into SAPS policing and crowd management after Marikana highlighted the limitations of dispersal to contain mobile and violent crowds. It recommended that the SAPS "should explore the potential for greater use of arrests" and said that during violent protest, arrest teams "should be used more actively".

By the afternoon of July 12 any hope the police might have had of containing the situation had been lost. Even the deployment of troops, announced that afternoon, was likely to be inadequate. What seemed to be a lackadaisical police response may simply indicate that, by this point, they were overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness at their inability to stem the tide.

If the police had been able to make a difference to the spread of the violence, it would have been by arresting more people at an early stage. But initial arrest rates were low

If the police had been able to make a difference to the spread of the violence, it would have been by arresting more people at an early stage. But initial arrest rates were low.

There are various other ways in which the police response could, in theory, have been better. The panel of experts report, for instance, raises the need for the SAPS to put in place an effective system for the command of large and complex operations and a specialised training programme for public order operational commanders.

But the essential problem is not with the system of public order policing. The failure to engage with the recommendations of the panel of experts report reflects fundamental problems with the overall management and governance of the police.

The SAPS is an enormous bureaucratic juggernaut. It is able only to reproduce itself rather than adapt to better address the challenges it faces.

It is unable to learn from and apply new ideas, whether they be the ideas from a panel of experts or examples of good practice from international experience or that of its own rank and file.

Simultaneously there is an absence of meaningful engagement with questions of policing policy from the government.

Minister of police Bheki Cele helped to restore a degree of calm and sanity to the situation in Phoenix, Durban, where racial tensions were flaring. But, like his predecessors since 2000 at least, he has not engaged with policing policy despite being obligated by the constitution to do so. He also seems to have little confidence in the ability of the civilian secretariat for police to advise him in this regard.

The unrest of last week has shaken SA to its foundations. As we begin to recover from the devastation, and come to terms with the consequences, it is not a time for pointing fingers.

Nevertheless, critical self-reflection is going to be important in the coming period. A clear lesson of the unrest is that the governance and management of our policing system need to be drastically overhauled.

• Bruce is an independent researcher and was a member of the panel of experts on policing and crowd management. This article forms part of work on policing he is doing on behalf of the Institute for Security Studies


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