/ 8 October 2010

Cape Town riot tactics under fire

Cape Town’s mayoral committee has defended the controversial riot-control methods of South African Police Service and city law enforcement officers in Hout Bay’s Hangberg fishing settlement, claiming that they had to defend themselves when they fell into a four-hour ambush.

The city’s Democratic Alliance mayoral committee member for safety and security, JP Smith, also suggested that attempts to blame the city for injuries sustained by residents were part of a “dirty tricks” campaign against the DA-led city government.

Four people claim to have lost an eye during running battles between residents and police over two days last month, sparked by shack demolitions. Many other residents and police personnel were injured.

The police response — officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at residents armed with petrol bombs, flares and smoke grenades — is now under investigation by the Independent Complaints Directorate and the South African Police Service.

Smith said that he was saddened by the violence, but that “looking at the footage, I don’t think it could have turned out any other way”.

“I understand that people get emotional if a structure they erected, albeit illegally, is dismantled in front of them. But that is not what happened here. SAPS, metro police and law enforcement were ambushed. That siege lasted for four hours.”

Smith said the city’s police team had worked under SAPS orders during the operation. Though some people were trying to blame metro police and law enforcement officers for the injuries to residents, this was merely part of a “dirty tricks” ­campaign against the DA-run administration.

“There were several Nyalas [armoured personnel carriers] on site. The city’s staff only had one,” said Smith. “Most people said that they were hit by rubber bullets fired by officers in Nyalas. But the officers were highly justified in defending themselves. To ambush them like that was attempted murder.”

Smith said residents had stockpiled weapons including bricks, petrol bombs and flare guns after Western Cape Premier and DA leader Helen Zille warned them at a public meeting to remove the illegal shacks or the city’s land invasion unit would tear them down.

The Hangberg community lives in government houses and flats at the base of Hout Bay’s Sentinel Mountain and residents claim that the shacks were erected by homeless community members.

Rasta druglords
Twenty-nine shacks were pulled down during the operation, and a further 54 the city claims were built illegally on a firebreak are still to be demolished. A council application to pull down the occupied shacks will be heard in court on October 18.

Zille told the Mail & Guardian that a small group of “Rasta druglords” were dead set against the city’s planned upgrade of the area, including access roads and services, because it threatens their illegal activities.

The city had tried on four occasions to prevent the erection of the shacks to allow for the upgrade, but had to retreat, said Smith.

But Hangberg residents said they are less concerned now about development than about renewed violence.

“The children are terrified because the police are going to come back when the city of Cape Town tears down more shacks. The police stormed into people’s houses without search warrants and beat up our families. They tore down shacks belonging to homeless members of our community,” said a furious 48-year-old Joan Jacobs, who has lived in the settlement all her life. “They stripped us of our dignity.”

Sixty-two people were arrested during the clashes, but Smith said he doubted whether any prosecutions would stick.

Last weekend hundreds of people marched to the Hout Bay police station to protest against the destruction of the shacks, but Smith claimed the march was hijacked by Cosatu.

In a memorandum addressed to the police, Cape Town mayor Dan Plato and Zille, residents demanded a commission of inquiry into last month’s violence. Residents also called for a moratorium on evictions by the city until a solution can be found.

Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu’s provincial secretary, said the federation had a long history of involvement with the Hangberg community.

“You just can’t have that level of police brutality and these claims of ‘political hijacking’ of the situation by Cosatu are an attempt to dodge the issue,” he said.

Police sources told the M&G that the coordination of the city’s law enforcement and metro police units with the SAPS was problematic ­during the operation.

It was normal practice for rubber bullets to be fired at the ground or feet during public-order operations, said seasoned police officials. However, each situation had to be judged on its merits.

“SAPS was involved in monitoring the situation and moved in only when the violence erupted,” said SAPS spokesperson Billy Jones. “A full investigation will be conducted.”

Former policeman Johan Burger, a senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, believes public-order policing should be left to SAPS, which is trained to deal with public violence.

But the priorities of the SAPS’s public-order units began changing as far back as 2002, when maintaining public order became secondary to combating crime.

“Police said this was because public-disorder incidents were decreasing, but they come unstuck when these cases arise, as we saw during the xenophobic violence in 2008,” said Burger.

He said that, in 2006, police halved the staff attached to the public-order units and changed their name to “crime-combating units”. Many trained and skilled staff were transferred to other police stations. The thinking was that they could be called on when needed. But many subsequently moved into other areas and some were promoted.

“The problems are glaringly visible when public order is needed, because they’re not up to the task and the army has to be called in,” he said.

Burger said he did not believe municipal law enforcement or metro police should be used in public-order operations, as they lacked the extensive training required for the job.