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South African soldiers deployed for parliament’s opening. Why this bodes ill

Reuters

South African soldiers deployed for parliament’s opening. Why this bodes ill

Reuters

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has drawn sharp criticism for his decision to have a military presence to help police “maintain law and order” during the opening of parliament. Opposition parties have protested against what they are calling “the militarisation of parliament”. The Conversation Africa’s politics and society editor Thabo Leshilo asked Jane Duncan about the implications of the decision.

Critics have called the unprecedented military presence planned for the opening of South Africa’s parliament unseemly. Is it?

Not only is it unseemly, it’s dangerous for democracy. According to British Sociologist Anthony Giddens, the separation of police and military functions is an essential feature of a modern democracy. There are good reasons for this.

Militaries usually protect countries from external threats, while the police are responsible for responding to internal threats. As a result of their differing mandates, their training differs too. Militaries are trained to use force more readily than police. In the words of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, they are focused on “killing people and breaking things”.

Police, on the other hand, are meant to use minimum force and to escalate their use of force only in exceptional circumstances. And public order police are meant to be trained in negotiation skills.

This is why the domestic deployment of the military is almost always a sign of growing state repression. Yet globally we are seeing a “turning inward” of military power, where militaries are being deployed domestically with increasing regularity. The uses of armed forces in policing functions expanded from the 1980’s onwards in the US, Canada and a number of Western countries.

Much of this has to do with the fact that there are fewer wars than before, although there’s been an uptick since 2013. As a result, militaries are losing their reason to exist, and the arms industry is losing profits.

In countries with limited budgets it becomes difficult to justify maintaining a military at all if soldiers aren’t being deployed. One way to justify their existence is to deploy them domestically in a variety of law and order functions, and to open up new markets for military hardware by selling them to police forces for domestic use.

This is one of the factors that’s driving police militarisation in countries like the US. The Long Range Acoustic Device or a sound cannon, is a case in point. It’s a military weapon, but is increasingly being used to control crowds.

Surveillance technologies are another example. Many being used by governments to spy on their citizens and the citizens of other countries are weapons-grade. They are therefore listed as dual use technologies as they have both military and civilian uses.

When taken together, these developments are leading to a creeping militarisation of society where the presence of military personnel, hardware and software, logics, strategies and tactics, become normalised. There are powerful political and economic interests at work in making sure that society becomes militarised. South Africa is no exception to this general rule.

What could be the real reasons for the decision?

There’s the broader global context. Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, and particularly since the 2008 global recession, the world has become a much more unstable place.

The recession has led to anti-austerity protests. In response, more governments have moved from using corporatist, negotiated means of stabilising social relations, to using force. When it comes to the policing of protests and other forms of dissent, the authorities are more likely to use force rather than to negotiate. This ideological shift has become apparent in South Africa too, especially under Zuma.

South African soldiers during a crime operation in Ottery, Cape Town, EPA/Nic Bothma

Then there’s the local context. South Africa has a particularly nasty history when it comes to the military being deployed domestically. Under apartheid the then South African Defence Force was used to quell resistance. This is why the drafters of the democracy-era White Paper on Defence said “never again”, unless under a narrow range of exceptional circumstances.

But some defence experts such as the late Rockland ‘Rocky’ Williams have argued that there’s no reason to believe that domestic deployment would automatically lead to the politicisation of the military.

In the case of the deployment of the military at parliament, though, it is apparent that the decision is politically driven as it’s being used to threaten an increasingly vocal political opposition to the president.

We have seen a resurgence of the militarists in South Africa. But the only way they can gain ground is to expand their role. How else can they make the case for 2% of Gross Domestic Product in times of peace? This resurgence should concern South Africans greatly because it suggests that the government intends to use force rather than negotiation to address social problems and political tensions. After all, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

What do both occurrences tell us about President Jacob Zuma and the ANC. What do they portend for the country?

The domestic deployment of the military is meant to take place only in exceptional circumstances. No case has been made for why it’s necessary for the opening of parliament.

But the decision should come as no surprise to the South African public. The government has been trying to justify a domestic role for the military for some time. Deployed initially in border control functions, there’s been an increase in the joint deployment of the South African National Defence Force and the police in a range of domestic policing functions. One example is the controversial crime-fighting blitz Operation Fiela in 2015.

According to Department of Defence records joint deployments of the policy and military were confined to fairly mundane functions before Zuma’s presidency. These included poaching of marine resources and rural patrols. But under Zuma’s presidency there’s been a huge uptick in joint deployments. In addition, they are increasingly being used in political contexts, such as to police strikes, elections, ANC meetings and parliament. This suggests that the Zuma administration is attempting to normalise the use of the military in policing political dissent. It should not be allowed to do so.

But the Zuma administration is playing a wild card. The military is industrialised and unionised. There is evidence that a significant number of soldiers see themselves not just as soldiers but as workers who are exploited. Therein lies a problem for the ANC government. If the current administration put soldiers in front of exploited, protesting workers (or other protesters), and they are told to shoot, what would they do? What if they refused? Can they really risk a rebellion in the military, which really would amount to mutiny?

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