2 500 soldiers not enough to curb unrest and looting


The Monday 12 July announcement that 2 500 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers would be deployed to assist police in quelling looting and unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng comes as relief to some, but even as a short-term solution, it is not enough.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Monday night, some were expecting a state of emergency to be declared. Ramaphosa condemned the violence and the damage it was causing but apart from the SANDF deployment, offered no drastic action and positive yet hollow words.

Tuesday saw looters continue to empty shops, particularly in malls, in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, with only a very few soldiers on the streets as the SANDF rushed to deploy. Several dozen people have now been killed and many more injured.

Although better than nothing, 2 500 soldiers is inadequate to deal with the literally thousands of looters who are overrunning shops, malls and warehouses. More soldiers need to be deployed, even if this means calling up reserves and repurposing sailors and airmen. The SANDF is thinly stretched and can only muster 10 000 soldiers for boots-on-the-ground deployment at any one time, but at least this will be more than the 2 500 being employed at present.

In order to stop the orgy of looting, the first thing South Africa needs to do is clear the streets and get people back in their houses – even if it is for just a couple of days.

A two or three day Level 5 lockdown in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng would likely be sufficient to curb the looting – other provinces have not experienced anything as severe and will probably be fine to continue under Level 4.

A state of emergency is most probably not necessary as a Level 5 lockdown has shown to be effective in curbing unnecessary movement. A state of emergency could take away civil liberties and curb things like media access, communications etc. and give more power to the military. As the SANDF is not trained to deal with crowd control, it needs to continue working with the police to maintain law and order. A state of emergency would not be a desirable, nor necessary, route to go down and defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has wisely cautioned against this.

After the dust clears, serious efforts need to be made to address the root causes of the looting and unrest, otherwise such incidents will keep happening in the future. Bringing in the military is only a temporary solution and until the socio-economic causes (including an official unemployment rate of 32%) are addressed, the problem can never be considered to be solved. Rather than a state of emergency, a state of economic emergency should be declared and drastic action taken to eliminate joblessness and desperation, for the sake of civil, national, human and economic security.