SANDF deployment in Western Cape giving space for politicians and police

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The deployment of soldiers to the Cape Flats earlier this month was a turnaround by the ANC government. For years it has resisted calls by the Democratic Alliance-led Western Cape and communities for the military to come and help fight gangs.

At best, the deployment offers a temporary, partial, and far from ideal solution. Ideally the police would be in control. What the deployment can do is temporarily stem gang related violence and give the politicians and police time to come up with a longer-term plan.

President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the deployment just days after a bloody weekend in early July when 13 people were killed in Philippi East on the Cape Flights. Yet coming after years of not responding to calls for soldiers to be deployed, it is also a sign of what Cameron Dugmore, the ANC Leader in the Western Cape Legislature, has called the “new dawn” in the Province’s politics.

“The ANC has changed its attitude toward the Western Cape as its strategy of total hostility and making the province ungovernable lost them votes,” says Helen Zille, who was the province’s Premier from 2009 to 2012. Up until the election the ANC strategy was “to take away resources, now suddenly that has changed,” she says.

With a 28.6 percent share of the provincial vote in May, the ANC was down over four percentage points from its 2014 result. “This was their worst election result in the province ever,” and they realise it is the result of their failed strategy of non-cooperation, she says.

David Peddle, a former South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Senior Staff Officer for Internal Operations, says the police could do what the Army is doing on the Cape Flats, but there are not enough of them.

“The police could draw R4s and patrol,” he says.

Peddle does see the troop presence as a “force multiplier” for the police although he views it as a “limited intervention”. Troops will basically be acting as “mobile guard posts”. The motorised infantry battalion with Mamba vehicles and troops armed with R4s will act in support of the police in such tasks such as manning roadblocks, conducting patrols, and securing perimeters for police cordon and search operations.

The government has sent a total of 1,302 troops, which is about a battalion in strength, but Peddle says their on-ground presence will be limited, as a large number will be in support functions.

Peddle, who once wrote the Army’s doctrine for internal operations, says the Army is experienced in these sort of peacekeeping roles and the risks of conflict with civilians and other incidents is low. Experience in urban peacekeeping in the DRC and elsewhere in Africa, border patrols, and past operations in SA are highly applicable to the Western Cape operation.

Above all, he says the help from the Army will allow police to operate in previous no-go areas and stands the chance of “putting a lid” on the violence. That he says could then pave the way for the arrest of the gang bosses and ultimately various social interventions.

Johan Burger, a former SA Police Service (SAPS) Assistant Commissioner who headed Operational Coordination, says the police should take the breather given by the military deployment to build their legitimacy by tackling corruption and collusion with gangsters in their ranks. In a second phase, he says the SAPS need to modernize, perform more effectively, and start imposing the rule of law.

Despite the new relationship between the ANC and DA in the province, there are major differences between the two on policing. The ANC does not want the DA to establish a local provincial police force. The ANC also rejects DA claims and says that the province is not short on police numbers, but the issue is the need to deploy them to the hardest hit areas.

The Premier of the Western Cape, Alan Winde, argues the central government is keeping the province short of police. The police to population ratio is one police officer for every 509 people in the province versus a national average of one to 375.

After the national election in May the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, said a minimum of 1 000 of the 5 000 police recruits in training will be sent to the province. Zille says the first prize from the new DA-ANC relationship would be to get 2 000 extra police for the Province.

The shortage of police in the province and the intense nature of the gang violence raises the matter of whether Ramaphosa will extend the deployment, beyond the initial three month period which ends on 16 September. This is at a time when there could be more calls for military support for the police to help quell attacks on trucks on the N3 in Kwa-Zulu Natal, contain gang violence in Port Elizabeth, and help to control potential outbreaks of violence fuelled by low economic growth.

Several dozen people were murdered in the Western Cape over the weekend, with experts pointing out that the SANDF cannot be relied on alone to solve the problem of crime in the province. Darren Olivier, Director at African Defence Review, has cautioned that “inflated expectations of the deployment led to false hope and a belief that we’d see an immediate positive impact. Now that this has been proven false, disappointment and resentment is setting in. Yet there’s still no sign of a broader plan to resolve the violence.”



“To be absolutely clear, I’m not blaming the SANDF troops deployed in the Cape for their lack of impact. We‘ve pointed out all along how they are (rightly) constrained by strict rules of engagement and the law’s requirement that they follow the SAPS’s lead. There are no quick fixes.”