No to soldiers on the streets

2018-07-22 06:05
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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WATCH: Mmusi Maimane is a 'natural black fool' - Deputy Minister of Police

2018-07-19 19:17

Deputy Minister of Police Bonginkosi Mkongi has called DA leader Mmusi Maimane a 'natural black fool'. Maimane led a group of DA supporters in a march to the Nyanga police station. WATCH. WATCH

In these times of populism, everyone gets the opportunity to do a populist dance.

To steal from Oprah Winfrey: “Jacob gets a chance, Cyril gets a chance, Julius gets a chance, Gatsha gets a chance, Mmusi gets a chance. Everybody gets a chance!”

This week, it was DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s turn to do the populist dance. Maimane and the DA’s provincial leadership led a march of about 1 000 people from Mannenberg to Nyanga Police Station, which oversees much of the Cape Flats. Addressing the crowd outside the police station, Maimane called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to deploy the army to assist the police in gang-ridden townships in Cape Town.

One way to help protect these communities from the onslaught of gangs and drug dealers is to deploy the army to help the police, he said. He qualified his call by saying he was not asking for the army to replace the police. Nor was he calling for the “militarisation of our neighbourhoods”.

“I’m talking about the temporary deployment of the army to supplement the SA Police Service so that they can concentrate on investigating crimes and making arrests,” he said.

The army, Maimane said, would help man road-blocks, escort emergency medical services, protect infrastructure, and secure government property and essential services.

“There is no logical reason at all to refuse this. In fact, less than a year ago, the ANC government pledged to deploy the army to Cape Town’s worst gang and drug areas,” said the amateur populist.

He was right on that last point. This doltish but dangerous idea was floated before by former police minister Fikile Mbalula, a seasoned populist.

Maimane’s idea was immediately shot down by Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi, a man with the political acumen of an apartheid-era township councillor. Mkongi is that guy who once called for a building to be torched while people were still inside it, just because someone had draped a “Zuma must fall” banner over it. Anyway, this latter-day Ephraim “Mshengu” Tshabalala blurted out that the reason the DA wanted the army in the townships was that “they want Africans to be shot down by soldiers”.

“Why do you want soldiers to enter war with their own people?” asked the genius.

A more rational response came from Police Minister Bheki Cele, who explained that the army was trained for combat and not policing. He called out the DA’s cynical politicking around the matter and emphasised that what was needed – and being worked on – was a boost in police numbers and policing effectiveness. But that would have been lost on a DA that has its eye on next year’s election and is set on using this tragic situation as a political football.

As a liberal party, the DA should know that it is a bad idea to involve the military in civilian life. Aside from the fact that they are not trained for policing, a constitutional democracy should do its utmost to discourage military involvement in internal affairs. History has shown that the military relishes a role in domestic politics.

And whenever it is involved in domestic matters, it is in their interests to linger for longer than they are supposed to. The military’s presence on the streets and the population’s familiarity with this increases their power and indispensability. We all know what happens in societies where the military wields power over politicians and other civilian actors. There are many countries around the world that experienced coups without actually having coups. Military influence creeps in stealthily through allowing soldiers a greater role in society. Before you know it, they have a disproportionate say in budgeting and policy, and in responses to domestic and international challenges.

It is true that the military was deployed – in very limited form – in some parts of the country during the flare-ups of xenophobic violence. But that was an extreme situation that involved savage, murderous violence and wanton destruction of property. As soon as the outbreak was over, the soldiers were out of our hair.

The situation on the Cape Flats is a lot more complex. Its historical, societal and economic roots require a much more sophisticated and holistic strategy. Yes, time is not on our side. People are dying and being maimed daily. Children are growing up inured to violence and many are being lured into this barbaric gang life. While an urgent response is required, this should not be in the form of vote-catching populism.

Before his next bluster, Maimane should have a look at the Mexican experience, where a “temporary” deployment to help bring the gang wars under control has now gone on for more than a decade. It has seen the army being embroiled in the war and being accused of brutality against civilians and of extrajudicial killings.

Now it is the army – which has watched its reputation go further down the drain the more it got sucked into the conflict – that is begging to be sent back to the barracks. The military chiefs are arguing that the fact that the problem is social and economic renders the army’s role ineffective.

“We didn’t ask to be here. We don’t like it. We didn’t study how to chase criminals,” Mexican Defence Minister Salvador Cienfuegos – a former general himself – told Business Insider last year.

“Our function is something else, and it’s been made into something unnatural. We are doing things that don’t correspond to our training because there’s no one else to do them.”

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