By Jakkie Cilliers *
Two weeks ago, South Africa’s Defense and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise told parliament that she would consider setting up a “medium” military force trained and equipped to deal with civil unrest. It was referring to France, an obvious reference to its gendarmerie system which was copied by most of its former African colonies.
Modise’s proposal comes after 25,000 soldiers were dispatched to KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng provinces to replenish police capacities following the public violence and looting that rocked the country in July.
A similar proposal was discussed in the run-up to the 1994 election in South Africa. The idea at the time was to convert the National Peacekeeping Force for this role. The African National Congress (ANC) wanted the force to have primary responsibility for law and order before and during the elections. It consisted of members of the former South African Defense Forces, the armed wings of the ANC and the Pan-African Congress, and elements of the former “home” armies.
When this proved unrealistic, security analysts considered transforming the National Peacekeeping Force into a public order police force. The project was eventually scrapped and the force disbanded.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) is responsible for public order. The South African National Defense Force (SANDF) provides assistance when public order police forces are unable to respond appropriately. In 2006, Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi closed 20 of the 43 units in a series of near-catastrophic changes that included the termination of various investigative units.
Public order police were partially resuscitated after the Marikana massacre in 2012, when 44 people died by the SAPS. The subsequent Farlam Commission of Inquiry reflected the deeply rooted and systemic challenges facing the police force, and its recommendations included reform of the public order police. The commission called for the professionalization, depoliticization and demilitarization of SAPS as well as better control over operational decisions, standing orders, police equipment, first aid and accountability.
Few of these proposals were ever implemented, but police were clearly aware of yet another Marikana disaster when they arrested former President Jacob Zuma in July. Yet the country’s police force was unprepared for the violence that followed.
These events reflected the extent to which South African intelligence was being exploited by the factional struggles of the ANC and again exposed the poor operational planning and response of the SAPS. When the SANDF was belatedly deployed, it did little more than guard selected key points. In some cases, soldiers appeared unable to intervene due to their lack of training and non-lethal equipment required for public order functions.
Exceptions are the events in Marikana and more recently in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. However, the police are likely to continue to need military assistance, perhaps to a greater extent as the number of violent protests increases. However, both face challenges in this area. On the one hand, South Africa has a huge, central police agency that is declining on all key performance indicators. On the other hand, the military is not up to the security challenges it and the region face.
The Defense Act provides that once members are authorized to operate in the country, they have the same powers and duties as the police, with the exception of investigating criminal offenses. The problem is that soldiers only appear to complement the police force – they neither have a mandate for public order nor do they carry out their police functions. One reason for the latter is likely that they are not trained or equipped for regular police service or public order duties.
Still, the military are often called in to help with tasks ranging from enforcing COVID-19 regulations to repairing sewer systems polluting the River Vaal to securing borders and containing public unrest. Without training, the right doctrine and equipment, soldiers are of little use in many of these situations – except as a show of power and guarding critical infrastructures.
By comparison, France has two police forces – the Nationale Gendarmerie and the Police Nationale. The National Gendarmerie is a branch of the military, but in peacetime it reports to the Ministry of the Interior. It has various military and defense missions, but its main role in peacetime is to monitor small towns, as well as rural and suburban areas.
The main feature of the French system is that police work in larger urban areas is carried out by the Police Nationale, while in rural areas it is carried out by the National Gendarmerie.
Each force has its own public order response units. For the Police Nationale, it is the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), which also serve as a general police reserve. Its functions include securing large public events, but is best known for controlling crowds. In rural areas, the National Gendarmerie uses their gendarmerie mobile to deal with civil unrest, although it is also used in urban areas when the CRS needs help.
Like the CRS, the Gendarmerie Mobile has other tasks such as managing the military reserve and drafting system in peacetime and mountain rescue. In times of war, the gendarmerie is responsible for area defense and internal order. The military is only a last resort.
There is just as much to learn from France as there is to be neglected. As in South Africa, the right to public protest is deeply rooted and demonstrations are only broken up if certain “rules of the game” are violated.
Although France’s two public order units have roughly the same training and powers, they differ in their clothing, equipment, and action from the rest of the police force. For example, the regular police act individually, while the order police act collectively – usually as a company or a squadron. This helps divert hostilities from the regular police force.
This is perhaps the only reason to consider adding additional public order capacity to the SANDF, provided that it is trained and equipped for the task. A lot will have to change, however. Most importantly, the recognition that the main role of the military in emergency prevention and response should be internal and regional.
One possibility could be that military units of the public order are seconded to the police or placed under constant police control, as Modise suggested – based on the French example. Whatever approach it takes, the SANDF is unprepared for such a role in every way – from its training, equipment, doctrine, to its ability to work with the police.
For this to change, police support would have to be seen as a core function rather than a secondary function of the SANDF and would have to include local or rural police and border security.
Modise inherited a military that ran into the ground. At the same time, the performance of the much larger police service has deteriorated despite substantial budget increases. A gendarmerie option could help, but likely in a very different format than in France – and with significant implications for the SANDF.
What South Africa urgently needs is a careful analysis of its security challenges and how they can be addressed given current budgetary constraints. That should be the job of the National Security Council. Otherwise, the president-appointed panel of experts to investigate the violence in July 2021 should take a broad, strategic approach to the task at hand.
* About the author: Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria
Source: This article was published by ISS Today