Marikana: Military ethos still rankles

Police commissioner Riah Phiyega was vague when questioned at the Farlam commission about the NDP's recommendations on demilitarising the police. (Gallo)

Police commissioner Riah Phiyega was vague when questioned at the Farlam commission about the NDP's recommendations on demilitarising the police. (Gallo)

An exchange between national police ­commissioner Riah ­Phiyega and the Marikana commission chairperson, Judge Ian ­Farlam, earlier this month, highlighted the police’s reluctance to undo the ­militarisation of the police service.

The exchange, during  Phiyega’s testimony to the comission, was prompted by chapter 12 of the National Development Plan (NDP), which was completed last year under the auspices of the minister in the presidency, Trevor Manuel, in his capacity as chair of the the National Planning Commission.The NDP maps out the course South Africa should follow in the next 30 years.

In that chapter, the NDP made strong recommendations with regard to what it described as the militarisation of the police. It found that the use of military ranks was a manifestation of this and that it should be reversed without delay.

During her evidence to the commission, Phiyega was questioned by Farlam about the police’s attitude to  the removal of military ranks. He said he supposed that it was a matter of “when” rather than “whether” this should be done, but while Phiyega was evasive, she refused to commit to implementing the recommendations.

During the exchange, which took place on June 11, Phiyega drew a distinction between militarisation and rank name changes, suggesting that the background philosophy behind those changes needed to be “re-engaged”, as even militarisation took place within the framework of the Constitution.

As Farlam homed in on the spec-ifics of the recent national planning commission report, asking Phiyega whether she agreed that demilitarisation was a short-term objective, she became vague, saying that the police were seeking at the end of “quarter four, to have a position we will be taking to our portfolio committee”.
She also said that in the curriculum for trainees, “human-rights education has been factored in”.

For all Phiyega’s protestations about a distinction between rank name changes and “philosophical background”, history recalls it differently. When the changes were announced by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa in March 2010, a month before they were effected, a symbiosis between the two was explicitly spelled out.

Rank changes
“Police forces around the world are referred to as the force and their ranks are accordingly linked to such designations,” Mthethwa stated at the time.

“We have taken a stance, as this government, of fighting crime and fighting it tough. The rank changes are therefore in line with our transformation of the force, not only in terms of name changes, but a change in attitude, thinking and operational duties.”

Three years after it was effected, the idea of instilling “command and control within police” has proved fruitless, imploded by several scandals both before and since the Marikana massacre, in which the police allegedly killed 34 mineworkers.

The rhetoric of toughness and the dubious doctrine of “maximum force” have since been shown (not least in Phiyega’s own public statements on the Marikana massacre) to have informed police thinking in the run up to official militarisation.

“The rhetoric at the time, even before [former police commissioner] Bheki Cele, with [former deputy police minister] Susan Shabangu talked about ‘kill the bastards’, was more influential than rank name changes,” said Johan Burger, a senior researcher in the governance, crime and justice division of the Institute for Security Studies.

“It was far more dangerous and effective on police behaviour. The idea of changing ‘service’ to ‘force’ never materialised because the [South African Police] Service Act and the Constitution refers to ‘service’, so they realised it was a no go.”

In ISS Today Burger wrote that “as much as ‘militarisation’ was not the answer to the problems facing the SAPS in 2010, so too will ‘demilitarisation’ or another change in the police rank system miss the fundamental issues. These include weak command and control and a lack of proper internal oversight structures that ultimately result in poor discipline. What is needed is the appointment of capable officers to senior positions as well as internal structures that can hold them accountable.”

The National Planning Commission’s report on demilitarisation appears to concur with this view.

“The police will earn public respect if they are efficient and effective and display a professional approach to combating crime,” it said. “The culture of the police and a professional ethos are interlinked; ethos relates to the skills and competence of the institution and culture relates to the approach, values and discipline of its members.”

Khulekani Mathe, acting head of the national planning commission secretariat, said it was important to understand the chronology of events.

“Bear in mind that Marikana happened a day after the National Planning Commission presented the National Development Plan to Cabinet and the Cabinet would have dealt with the recommendations only in September. The Cabinet has people responsible for the implementation of the plan and there are proposals that can be implemented immediately and others that require a longer lead time.”

The police commissioner did not respond before deadline to questions.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

Client Media Releases

Tribute to Johnny Clegg - Doctor of Music (honoris causa)
VUT Vice-Chancellor addressed the Somali National University graduation ceremony
NWU summit focuses on human capital in Fourth Industrial Revolution