Marikana: shining the light on police militarisation and brutality in South Africa

The Farlam Commission found that the police inappropriately chose to forcibly break the strike at Marikana, resulting in the deaths of 34 miners. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

The widely criticised Farlam Commission of inquiry’s report into the Marikana massacre has put a spotlight on the dangers of South Africa’s militarised police force. The government needs to seize the opportunity to address this problem once and for all.

Possibly the most significant finding by the commission is that the police inappropriately abandoned public order policing with its emphasis on crowd control in favour of forcibly disarming the striking miners and breaking the strike.

This was done because police leaders had declared August 16 – the day on which the massacre occurred – “D-day”. The police took this decision not because the situation on the ground demanded it, but in response to inappropriate political considerations.

The decision had an impact in how things turned out at Marikana. The police reduced the involvement of the Public Order Police, which deals with public unrest, and increased the involvement of specialised policing units with little-to-no experience in public order policing. These included the paramilitarised Tactical Response Team, the National Intervention Unit for counter-terrorism, which deals with medium- and high-risk law enforcement, and the Special Task Force, which deals in counter-terrorism and hostage situations.

The operational plan was geared heavily towards the use of maximum force rather than minimum force. This is hardly surprising – this is what these paramilitary units are trained for.

In an attempt to prevent a recurrence of the massacre, Farlam has called for the National Planning Commission’s recommendations to demilitarise the police to be implemented. But the problem is that that no-one, including Farlam himself, has set out what this task involves.

The police and even the National Planning Commission seem to understand militarisation as being about the reintroduction of the military ranking system to the police. But it is so much more than that, as the Marikana massacre demonstrated graphically.

What militarisation means

Peter Kraska, possibly the foremost academic on the subject, defined police militarisation as an ideology which stresses the use of force and threats of violence to solve problems, and using military power as a problem-solving tool.

Kraska undertook ethnographic work of the US paramilitary Special Weapons & Tactics (SWAT) teams from the 1980s onwards, and developed a militarisation continuum. He used indicators ranging from:

  • material indicators (the extent of martial weaponry);

  • cultural indicators (the extent of martial language);

  • organisational indicators (the extent of martial arrangements); and

  • operational indicators (the extent of operational patterns modelled after the military).

In the US, police militarisation emerged during the “war on drugs” in the late 1960s, and intensified after the September 11 attacks and the 2008 global recession. More countries followed the US example, using vaguely defined “wars on” to justify their actions.

This conflicted with what, by then, had become the dominant model of protest policing, which recognised protest as a right and a legitimate form of political expression. Countries such as Canada and Germany that embraced this approach were social democratic in nature, and aimed for a socially included (or co-opted) working class. Therefore, they stressed the negotiated management of protests.

The advent of neoliberalism from the 1970s onwards changed all that. As political elites promoted social polarisation and many workers became condemned to lives of permanent unemployment, they pursued more authoritarian policing practices stressing the use of force. At the same time, these countries, such as the US and the UK, also began to redefine crime. Crime was not a social problem caused by ills such as poverty, but as an aberration justifying increasingly violent responses.

Drawing on Kraska’s work, it becomes apparent that militarisation is not just about the police using military ranks. It is also about the increasing use of the military in internal security matters, and applying military models to domestic policing. When the police are militarised, more elite police units that are modelled on military special operations units are established and normalised in a range of policing functions.

The military have also taken on more policing functions, leading to a blurring of the distinction between the two, and they transfer more weapons to the police. This is problematic. The military is mandated to use force much more readily than the police. A soldier that hesitates to use combat skills in a war situation could be killed.

The South African case

When Kraska’s continuum is considered, it becomes apparent that the South African police are being two-faced on the demilitarisation question. While claiming to be committed to demilitarisation, as national police commissioner Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega told parliament last month, they have actually been remilitarising. Marikana seems to have strengthened their resolve to do so.

While the South African police leadership was closing specialist policing units, they increased the number of paramilitary units. Yet there is no transparency about when and why the paramilitary units are being deployed. And there are signs that they have become normalised in more areas of policing: an operational indicator of militarisation.

They have also become well-known for extremely violent policing, especially the Tactical Response Team.

Danger signs for democracy

The police and the military are increasingly being deployed jointly to the point where South Africa’s security cluster, comprising primarily the departments of intelligence, army, and the police, has begun referring to the police, the military and the intelligence services as the joint security forces. This is being done on an increasingly centralised basis through the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, an organisational indicator of militarisation.

South African National Defence Force soldiers patrolling the streets. EPA/Nic Bothma

For some time, policymakers have been preparing the ground for an increasing domestic deployment of the military. This convergence of powers and functions is taking place along militarised and intelligence-led lines. This mandate and function creep is extremely dangerous for South Africa’s democracy.

Last year, the police made a plea to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police for a doubling of resources for their public order work. This request rested on dubious grounds. It overplayed the extent of violent protests, as shown by research.

The slippery slope

The Marikana massacre happened partly because police militarisation is much more advanced than is often acknowledged in the public debate. A superficial understanding of the problem serves the police as it prevents them from being held to account. It masks the extent to which militarisation has been driven by deliberate political decisions in favour of a more repressive social order.

Despite all the arguments for police demilitarisation, the extent of militarisation has not been quantified. The joint deployments of the police, the military and the intelligence services, as well as paramilitary unit deployments, remain under-analysed.

Organisations such as the Institute for Security Studies, which states its goal as advancing “human security in Africa through evidence-based policy advice, technical support and capacity building”, have downplayed the extent of police militarisation.

Academics have been largely missing in action, failing to take up Kraska’s cue. This leaves South Africa with no real roadmap for achieving police demilitarisation. It puts the right to protest in post-Marikana South Africa in a very dangerous place.

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