Monday, 3 June 2013

SAPS: South Africa's Wrong Arm of the Law

by Chris McMichael, Think Africa Press

The violent reputation of South African law enforcement is well earned: from the 34 miners shot dead by police at the Marikana mine last August to the death of Andries Tatane – footage of whose fate at the hands police at a protest drew public outrage in 2011 – to many beatings and humiliations which are never reported. It is little wonder then that some feel South Africa’s police force is reviving aspects of its role during apartheid as an “internal army of occupation”.

Many commentators have pointed to a disturbing process of re-militarisation within the South African Police Service (SAPS), which is understood to have reintroduced military ranks in 2010. The SAPS’ tactics have received public endorsement from government officials and this re-militarisation has occurred in parallel with a broader “securitisation of the state”, whereby the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has attempted to extend the power of security forces while shielding their operations from public scrutiny.

This has received much public criticism, and a critique of this trend has even appeared in a document from the government’s own National Planning Commission. The report called for a strategic change, stressing that the role of the police is to “keep the peace” and “protect communities”, rather than to perform the military function of “seeking out, overpowering and destroying” enemies of the state.

Keeping the peace?
Time and again in contemporary South Africa, trying to maintain a strict distinction between policing and class warfare has often been a matter of semantics. Put bluntly, the SAPS, along with various supporting forces organised at the metropolitan level, is central to upholding and enforcing a skewed socio-economic order through force and intimidation. This is not just a product of recent policy shifts but is one of the very premises of the service’s constitutional mandate of “maintaining public order”.

The most visible expression of this has been the SAPS’ response to community and worker protests. These demonstrations, which often occur because formal efforts to communicate grievances to authorities have failed, are undoubtedly reflections of a wider malaise in South African society. Throughout the country, the police have been at the frontline of containing and sometimes even suppressing the revolts and movements which, in the words of the Mail & Guardian, express “the basic demands of the poor – as well as their larger, emancipatory aspirations”. This has ranged from overt violence, such as the killing of Andries Tatane, to using the threat of state terror – for instance in the case of a police official allegedly telling the organisers of a march against SAPS brutality that if it went ahead, “there would be another Marikana”.

Rather than being the exclusive product of poor crowd management skills, this phenomenon bears all the hallmarks of a strategy designed to suppress grassroots political mobilisation. When protests have been accompanied by acts such as the blockading of roads or the destruction of municipal property, the police use them as a pretext for escalated counter-force. With ready access to armoured vehicles and helicopters, and tactical reliance on potentially lethal rubber bullets to disperse crowds, the SAPS are highly effective in seeking out and overpowering potential challenges to the status quo.

Serving capital
However, police power is not just deployed in aid of the government. Much of the media commentary portrays state violence as emerging from ‘political meddling’ in the police by the ANC. This may be true, but ignores how repression also serves powerful interests.

In particular, the suppression of strikes and demonstrations arising from labour issues is good for big business; it disciplines the workforce and ensures a stable climate. Police interventions which fall under the remit of protecting order also ensure that conflicts arising from low pay and other economic arrangements deemed to be unfair can be presented as security issues.

The recent heavy police presence in response to wildcat farmworker strikes in the Western Cape, for example, ensured that areas of importance to the wine and tourism industries were quickly pacified, at least temporarily. The collaborative nature of the relationship between the police and business was also clearly evidenced in the Marikana shootings, where the deployment of special SAPS units was aided by surveillance footage provided by the Lonmin Company which owns the mine.

However, police oppression is not just about securing the interests of specific businesses but is central to the wider maintenance of the distribution of property and power. This role is exemplified in the swift and draconian clampdowns on occupations of unused land by the urban poor. The City of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit (the largest and best funded law enforcement entity in the city), for example, has repeatedly and violently evicted occupiers; one instance saw the deployment of 21 vehicles containing police officers and labourers to demolish a single structure. Such disproportionate responses serve to demonstrate and warn citizen-subjects of the outcome of attempting to challenge the structures of land ownership.

These are just some examples of how policing is central to both the rule of the state and the market. The point is not that all individual police officers are brutal thugs or that it is useless to protest against the growing authoritarianism. However, by focusing on simply rolling back “militarisation” or “securitisation”, we may lose sight of how the police are a central mechanism in enforcing a social model still based on domination, hierarchy and exclusion.