For all its failings, the military remains effective in one regard: instilling fear. And striking workers at Marikana felt that fear this week.
And their fear may have played a role in convincing them to return to work on Thursday. That, perhaps, helped to avoid more bloodshed. But that success – if a success it was – must not be allowed to set a precedent. Marikana was a unique situation, and the deployment of the military there must remain a unique event.
The Western Cape government, which has previously floated the idea of military intervention in township protests, will likely argue otherwise. Commanders of public-order policing units will no doubt be keen on the idea of military help, as will municipalities worried that their libraries will be torched and well-to-do residents who fear their cars will be stoned.
The army, they will say, can offer logistical support to over-stretched police. But the true motive, the unspoken reason, will be to use the sense of menace that a military deployment brings as a blunt instrument to suppress dissent.
Marikana notwithstanding, the average labour or service-delivery protest is an almost joyous form of political expression from people who feel unable to make their voices heard in any other way. At hundreds of such protests in recent years police have ducked rocks thrown at them and protesters have fled rubber bullets, and only days later the same police members have helped the same community members to resolve domestic disputes.
Introducing the military will fundamentally change the tone of such protests. Too many people still have visceral memories of what camouflage uniforms on township streets meant before 1994. Things have changed since then, but mostly for the worse. Military units are even less prepared to deal with unarmed opponents and are generally less disciplined and suffer worse command and control than in the days of apartheid. And their lack of proper crowd-control equipment, and their tactics, are simply not appropriate.
If the government fails to resist calls for military help in crowd control, dissent that would otherwise be expressed on the streets will either be bottled up until it explodes, or will come with the added risk that protesters will seek to equalise things with a more military approach of their own. Either way, the result will be more violence, not less.
There are attendant problems with domestic use of the military: the impact on the image of the country when images of soldiers on township streets flash around the world, a reduction in our already poor ability to protect South Africa from external threat, and perhaps a reduced focus on peace-keeping activities north of the Limpopo.
What should prevent it, however, is the realisation that showing defiance does not threaten democracy, but deepens it – and where that opposition flirts with the limits of the law, or transgresses the law, the answer is careful crowd management by a well-trained police service, not the deployment of poorly trained troops.