By Kotie Geldenhuys
It is a big concern that a large number of violent protests undermine the SAPS's crime prevention efforts. When protestors block roads and damage property, the police need to divert their resources away from other responsibilities and activities in order to disperse protestors.
The police are often criticised for their role in violent protests. They were almost solely blamed for what went wrong at Marikana in August 2012, where police shot and killed 34 striking miners and wounded 76 others, after two of their own were hacked to death. By the end of 2015, South Africa saw protests on university campuses which involved widespread disruption of teaching programmes by these protestors (Bruce, 2016b). This time, the police were blamed for responding too quickly.
Public Order Policing Units
The Public Order Policing (POP) Unit is the key component of the SAPS responsible for dealing with protest, especially where there is violence or the risk thereof. These police members have to address the failures of other governmental departments and companies. I simply do not think it is fair to expect that the police must continue to act as a shield between communities and local governments or between employers and employees during service delivery and local government protests.
Ever since Jackie Selebi, the national police commissioner at the time, disbanded Public Order Policing Units in 2006, the police’s ability to deal with protests took a knock resulting in the loss of a lot of expertise. Before Selebi’s decision, there were 43 POP Units with a total of 7227 trained members (Burger, 2014). But following his restructuring process, only 23 units were left with a total of 2595 members (a reduction of 64%). Fortunately, this situation is starting to change. According to the 2015/2016 Annual Report of the SAPS, there are 28 Public Order Policing (POP) Units countrywide (one national unit in Pretoria and 27 provincial units). Unfortunately there are still not enough operational police members (4227) who are specifically trained to deal with maintaining public order. In February 2014, the Minister of Police at the time, Nathi Mthethwa, promised that an expansion in this unit will result in 9000 trained members across the country (Burger, 2014). During a handing over function of essential resources to POP Units at the Tshwane Police Academy on 31 May 2017, the acting national police commissioner at the time, Lt-Gen Khomotso Phahlane, revealed that POP Units’ capacity will increase to 50 provincial POP Units and four POP Reserve Units.
According to the 2015/2016 Annual Report of the SAPS, in addition to maintaining public order, members of POP Units are also involved in other tasks such as:
- crime combating actions to address serious and violent crimes (eg armed robberies in transport and farm attacks and to protect persons and property), rendering specialised operational support;
- assisting detectives in the search for wanted persons, apprehending and escorting dangerous and violent suspects; and
- assisting PSS in protecting VIPs (by controlling perimeters, protecting national key points, managing crowds and providing tactical reserves).
Some members of the metro police departments have been trained in crowd management and Maj-Gen Mkhwanazi, the Component Head of SAPS's Public Order Policing (POP), said during the 2016 ISS seminar that there is good cooperation between members of the metro police departments and SAPS. Quarterly meetings are held between the SAPS and metro police departments about training in crowd control. The metro police departments however only act as first responders until the police arrive on the scene. During the event on 31 May 2017, the media were told that the police will firstly negotiate with the protesters up to a point where the protestors are given a timeline to disperse. If it seems that the first police responders will not be able to control the crowd or when the group starts to turn violent, the POP Unit's help will be called in. Police interventions during violent protests actions include the use of the police’s non-lethal crowd management equipment such as water cannons, tear gas, smoke and stun grenades and rubber bullets. These are similar methods as used by international law enforcement agencies.