The SAPS acted decisively during the DA march, showing how a confrontation should be handled.
There was no warning, no negotiation. One moment the crowd of several hundred ANC supporters were running at speed down Rissik Street, some brandishing bricks, others sticks.
Then the stun grenades popped.
Two loud explosions, right at the feet of the frontrunners, then two more, even as the echoes of the first were still bouncing back from the surrounding high-rise buildings. A small contingent of police stood ready, exuding steely professionalism, and armoured vehicles rushed to the intersection, but the battle between the Democratic Alliance and the ANC had already been won – by the police.
Just a block away from where the confrontation took place, the truck leading the DA’s march was halted in a convenient patch of shade for a momentarily confused rendition of the national anthem and some hurried speeches.
Between the thousands of DA marchers and the storming ANC supporters stood two lines of unarmed party marshals, and another of private security guards, all without protective gear.
Police, stretched thin in a line running back many blocks, were ludicrously outnumbered by the onrushing ANC crowd, and the DA crowd, packed across the width of Marshall Street, had nowhere to go.
The meeting of the two groups, had there been one, would have been very ugly indeed, and could have damaged far more than just the combatants, less than three months before general elections.
The DA knew what it was walking into – before the march started in the late morning on Wednesday party supporters showed each other tweeted pictures of ANC supporters in the vicinity of that party’s headquarters brandishing projectiles.
One key party member flatly refused to be in the vanguard of the march without protective headgear. But police, having in effect been ordered by a court to reverse a decision that the march was too dangerous to allow, were having none of it.
A helmet, the police told the DA, is a provocation; the protection it offers also makes the wearer a safer target, one that can be used to make a point without the risk of inflicting grievous injury.
It was not the only unpopular decision police made on the day. Halting the DA group four blocks south of its intended destination, Beyers Naudé Square, which all but abuts the ANC’s Luthuli House, was greeted by groans of dismay. Again, the police were firm: the march would get no closer to the thousands of ANC supporters but would turn around and head back to its starting point.
It turned out to be a prescient call. The large buffer zone between the two groups – established at the cost of enormous traffic disruptions, which was itself not a popular decision – provided the time to prepare for the onrushing ANC supporters, and turn them back with harm to neither property nor person.
There would be further skirmishes along several intersections on the day, several more flashbang grenades, more bricks and rocks hurled at police, and even petrol bombs. But between good tactical planning and quick, decisive action, much trouble was forestalled.
It was a textbook example of how crowd control is supposed to work, at a time when it so often does not.
Police procedure provides a clear escalation in the handling of unruly crowds. The first line of defence is pyrotechnics, stun grenades or, in closer combat, blanks fired from shotguns. These forcefully bring home the prospect of imminent death but require an unlikely series of coincidences to cause injury.
Next come the medium-range physical measures: water cannons, if available, or rubber bullets. These have stopping power, but also a commensurate increase in risk of injury.
Allowing protesters close enough so that shields and batons come into play is a failure in itself. Allowing escalation beyond that is nearly unthinkable.
Clear and sensible as the rules are, they are too often theoretical. In service-delivery protests around the country, police on the ground do not have a clear picture of crowd movements, do not have the correct equipment, do not have the necessary training, do not receive clear commands, fail to act resolutely, or fall prey to adrenaline and aggression. Situations escalate. People die.
A Wednesday lunch hour in the Johannesburg city centre showed that it need not be that way. Where political parties fail (as did both the ANC and the DA), where common sense deserts a mob (as it did a faction of the ANC supporters), where bloodshed is a clear and immediate likelihood, the police can act as a last line of defence.
The circumstances surrounding the DA march were atypical. Service-delivery protests are more common in township streets than in city centres. There is often little warning or time for preparation; crowds gather seemingly out of nowhere, and often have no clear objective in mind, making them unpredictable. Also, the world is rarely watching as closely.
At least, on this day, the police got it right.