On Thursday, Police Minister Bheki Cele said that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will be deployed to help fight high levels of crime on the gang-ridden Cape Flats in Cape Town. Is it legal for the army to stand in for the police? Under what circumstances is it allowed and what are the risks? Dr Johan Burger, senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, explains.
In any democracy deploying the army to police the citizenry is something that you want to postpone for as long as possible. The army isn’t normally trained for such an exercise and its doctrine, training and authority structures aren’t suited to the situation. Army members are trained to go to war. There is therefore always the danger that when soldiers are deployed in communities for long periods of time that there will be certain violations.
Army members can, for instance, find themselves in a situation where they have to stand in as proxies for the police, in which case they have to apply police rules such as the use of minimum force and following the correct procedure during an arrest.
While they are supposed to receive training on police rules and conduct before they go into a community, they may find themselves in a situation where they do not have the experience to handle it correctly.
They are also trained to use machine guns, not pistols, so you want to avoid a shootout at all costs.
The other danger is that when you deploy a whole lot of young men into a community where there are young women, we’ve seen in other places in Africa that it doesn’t take long for complaints to surface. It’s not an ideal situation.
However, the Constitution and Defence Act make provision for the deployment of the SANDF to support the South African Police Service (SAPS) when deemed necessary. There are strict prerequisites for this.
The SANDF may only be deployed by the president, who has to inform Parliament and give detailed instructions for the deployment. This includes how many soldiers will be deployed, how long they will be deployed, when exactly the deployments starts in which areas precisely and what their responsibilities will be.
It’s important to understand that the army can’t replace the police or do their job. The police continues to do its job. Rather, army members are deployed to bring calm and stability to areas that’s seen high levels of violence and crime.
The advantage of having the army in such an area is that is creates space for the police to concentrate on investigating the prevailing crime and violence. When the police have to protect the community, there is very little time for actual investigations.
Due to the nature of their structures, their weapons and vehicles, the army comes with a degree of authority, which brings calm and peace of mind to people in unstable environments. So the psychological advantages are also important.
However, the army is not the solution to the problem. They can at best protect an area for a certain period of time. The police must use that time to do proper investigations to track down the criminals responsible for the violence, arrest them and make sure they are tried in court.
The type of violence we’re seeing as a result of gangs in Cape Town, for example, is not the result of shortcomings in policing in the area, but other underlying factors such as poverty and unemployment. There are often also political factors at play. The relevant state departments and local authorities must come to the party and provide basic infrastructure and services that speak to the local communities’ unhappiness.
The army will be present for months at most and then things go back to normal. In this time the police and other departments have to sort out the real problems.