/ 15 July 2019

Military intervention is not a crime-fighting solution

Recent history proves that when the military are deployed to do community level policing the results are ugly
Recent history proves that when the military are deployed to do community level policing the results are ugly, writes the author. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)

The imminent deployment of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) into the Cape Town communities of Bishop Lavis, Mitchells Plain, Delft, Elsies River, Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni, Philippi, Kraaifontein and Manenberg is likely to worsen the security of residents in these areas.

Recent history proves that when the military are deployed to do community level policing the results are ugly. It just does not work as it is meant. From Brazil to the Philippines, Northern Ireland to Kashmir, Mexico to Nigeria, the results are the same.

Yes, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are not the Cape flats. But the Cape flats are also not an anomaly. The favelas of Rio also confront chronic levels of violence that come with gang wars, drug trafficking and high levels of drug abuse and soaring murder rates. The Rio experience should then sound a warning to those cheerleading the deployment of the military.

The military and police were first deployed to the community of Santa Marta in December 2008 under the banner of the Unidade de Policia Pacificadora — the Pacification Police Units — or UPPs. At first residents welcomed the initiative and the deployment, which coincided with the introduction of a “UPP Social” program aimed at dealing with the underlying socio-economic issues in Rio’s favelas. Over the years, however, militarised policing in the city has been corrupted by police and military officers working with instead of against the violent gangs and drug traffickers they are supposed to protect communities from. Increasingly, the UPPs set out to profile and indiscriminately target many young, black and mixed race men suspected of criminal activity often arresting, shooting and/or killing them with little regard for conventional police procedure or legal justice mechanisms. The police were involved in 902 killings of civilians in in Rio de Janeiro in 2007; between January and November 2018, that number nearly doubled to 1448. As of May this year, the military police in the country have killed 434 people, most of them were young black and mixed race men.

The situation in Cape Town is an emergency. But the deployment of soldiers to carry out community policing has proven elsewhere to be an ineffective stop-gap measure in quelling violence. It is not the solution for Cape Town.

It wasn’t the answer for Cape Town in late May 2015 when soldiers were deployed to the community of Manenberg during Operation Fiela, at the height of the xenophobic violence that gripped the country. Soldiers carried out 3am raids, confiscated weapons and supported police in arrests. However, the operation was reactionary in outcry to Operation Fiela’s activities in Johannesburg, whilst the police ignored the high levels of crime on the Cape Flats at the time. Precisely because little has been done to address the social ills that plagued Manenberg then — rampant drug use, very high youth unemployment and illegal guns in circulation amongst gangs — the military will once again be deployed to the same area 4 years later to carry out the same operation.

South Africa’s own military leadership and officials admit to their inability to carry out community policing — a mandate they are not trained for. Combating and preventing crime are skill sets that are outside of the SANDF’s training. SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke stated in a media briefing on the July 31 2018 that “crime is not our domain and we’ll try to avoid, as much as possible, to get involved in combating crimes. If I may repeat what I said in November: when we come in, we skop and donner”. He further stated that he does not want to see a situation where the force is engaged in combat against civilians. This is the issue at the crux of the matter. Soldiers are trained to deal with external threats and armed combatants; that is a fundamentally different training to those of police officers in communities. The SANDF are deployed to attack enemies and defend our borders and themselves in overseas combat, while the police are trained and must distinguish between victims and criminals, often in split second decisions on the streets of the neighbourhoods they police.

As was the case with Manenberg in 2015, the military have been deployed before within our borders with varying degrees of success.

Last year, military doctors and officers were deployed to the North West province to assist nurses and doctors during service delivery protests and disruptions. The military has also been deployed to areas with during times of high levels of political killings such as in Richmond and Umlazi in KwaZulu-Natal. Operation Fiela in 2015 was launched in response to widespread violence against undocumented immigrants in Johannesburg. All of these examples were targeted, purposeful and most importantly, short-term operations in service of the short-term goals of restoring medical services in areas, preventing political violence around elections and ending attacks during a period of instability. The military’s presence and deployment was not long-term and was never meant to provide long-term solutions.

Another important factor from South Africa’s own context and recent history is the involvement of militarised police — known as Public Order Policing (POP) units — in response to public protests. These units responded to the striking miners gathered on the koppie in Marikana in August 2012 and were involved in the deadliest police attack on civilians since the end of apartheid, killing 34 people. These units were also deployed during various protests around #FeesMustFall in 2015 and 2016, responding to peaceful demonstrations with excessive force and conducting raids and operations on university campuses with negative consequences. It is not only that the lines delineating the duties of the military and the police have become blurred, it is that South African police are backsliding into the old, violent and militant habits of policing from our past. This cannot be how we move forward.

While violent crime has spiked to reach unconscionably dangerous levels in Cape Town over recent weeks, a long-term solution to rampant gang activity, drug abuse and drug trafficking and the underlying issues of unemployment, resource deprivation and poverty, inequality and an unequal distribution of police resources cannot be solved by the military’s intervention. The inability of police to deal with recent spate of murders and lawlessness in Cape Town’s communities is due to decades of chronic understaffing and under-resourcing of police personnel and general political apathy to the residents of the communities. The military cannot solve those problems, only long-term and sustained interventions that are carefully planned and carried out can achieve that.

Cape Town’s besieged poor black and coloured communities need rapid resource mobilisation including improved and enhanced crime intelligence operations in the area; the redeployment of police personnel from other suburbs and surrounding towns; and increased visible policing on high rotation. In the long-term, more police stations are needed in areas where police know that violent crime is chronic and systemic; more training and resources need to be made available for combating gang activity and sophisticated organised crime networks; and an overhaul of the provincial leadership of the SAPS should be tabled and implemented. The solutions seem logical and one may even believe that they have already been tried but the findings of the Khayelitsha Commission on policing; the research, daily work and monitoring from many NGOs based in Cape Town’s communities; as well as SAPS’ own publicly available data shows that this has not happened.

Brazil is not South Africa and Cape Town’s communities are not in a foreign country, but the lessons offered to us by decades of failed militarised policing from around the world are too stark and too deadly not to learn. SAPS and our elected officials have failed dismally at producing forward thinking and comprehensive solutions to crime on the Cape Flats and introducing the military to carry out community policing may produce even deadlier outcomes than any of us foresee.

Ziyanda Stuurman is a graduate of Stellenbosch University, a 2017/2018 Chevning Scholar and a graduate of Sussex University’s School of Global Studies. She is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Brandeis University undertaking research on the intersections between security studies, gender studies, international development and public policy.