Tatane: Is crowd control doctrine at fault?


Six Free State public order policemen have found the hard way just how thin the blue line of the law is.

Two stand accused of murdering Fouriesburg protester Andries Tatane and four more have been charged with assault after attacking the 33-year-old teacher taking part in a “service delivery protest”.

It is not the first time policemen are in the dock for murder on duty and it will not be the last. The question is whether Nicodemus Moiloa, 52 and Mothusi Magano, 34, who stand accused of Tatane’s murder and Mphonyana Ntali, 29, Olebogeng Mphirime, 31, Teheli Moeketsi, 49, and Jonas Skosana, 32, who are accused of assault with the intent to commit grievous bodily harm should stand there alone. Should they not be joined by their commanders, trainers and doctrine-writers?

There are those who will say the South African police have always had a cavalier approach to crowd control, dating back to Sharpeville in March 1960 and were forced by various court cases and Judicial Commissions of Inquiry to “get with the programme”, to find that balance to conduct effective, preferably consensual, non-lethal crowd control in a manner that did not see frontline police officers and commanders imprisoned. Useful research on this can be found in Janine Rauch & David Storey’s “The Policing of Public Gatherings and Demonstrations in South Africa 1960-1994”, Truth Commission Research Unit, http://www.csvr.org.za/wits/papers/papjrds.htm, accessed on April 19, 2011.

While the facts are now before the courts, television footage taken during last week’s protest show a bare-chested Tatane confronting a police water cannon minutes before an altercation in which several policemen beat him to the ground with batons while at least two others appeared to shoot him at point blank range with “rubber bullets”.

Did the policemen lack self-control and self-discipline, those essentials in any officer tasked with bearing arms in the presence of an angry crowd? Were their officers showing leadership? Was the command-and-control as well as discipline adequate? What were they armed with? Did they have adequate protective clothing, helmets and shields? Was this an “isolated incident” involving “rogue” police?

Whatever the answer, it will be very cold comfort for the six men in the dock, as must be national police commissioner General Bheki Cele’s welcoming of their arrest and President Jacob Zuma’s comments yesterday.

I have been told, repeatedly, over the last two years, by people who understand crowd control, that there is much fundamentally wrong with the police’s philosophical and doctrinal approach to crowd control. Their training is reportedly also dangerously unrealistic – as well as shallow – and, importantly, their equipment does not match their approach, doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures in term of command-and-control and crowd interface.

Indeed, some might now aver the clock started ticking for Tatane and the six in the dock in 1995, when the police “demilitarised” and moved from being a paramilitary to being a civilian police service. Many babies, it seems, were then thrown out with the bathwater; and the current approach, as explained to me, smacks of the chaotic situation that applied in 1960. No doubt more cold comfort for Moiloa and company.

My interlocuteurs warned that unless the national police – and the many municipal police that now also involve themselves in crowd control – addresses these issues a disaster could ensue and the authorities would find their doctrine on trial. Now it seems it has come to that.