SA Army to return to crime fighting?


Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa wants the military to return to the streets to assist the police in fighting crime, several Independent Group newspapers reported yesterday and today. 

The reports also confirms that Mthetwa wants to reverse a previous Cabinet decision to remove the South African National Defence Force from borderline patrol tasks.

The paper said the police minister wanted officers “manning the country’s borders to be withdrawn so they can focus on fighting crime in business and residential areas.”

He told the Pretoria News that rampant crime could only be dealt with if more police officers were deployed in problem areas.
“The old cabinet said we have set a law that police should be at the border, and March was meant to be the last day for the army to withdraw,” Mthethwa said. “We are going to be engaging our colleagues on that – the challenge at home is the crime in business and residential areas.

“I would argue – why would you want to have borders manned by the police? And if you look at international trends, the job of securing the country is done by the army. If it needs a review, it must be reviewed,” he said.

Unfunded mandates

President Thabo Mbeki`s Cabinet, perhaps influenced by “empire building” within the police, decided some years ago that borderline protection was a police function as it largely involved arresting illegal border crossing, whether by criminals or by economic migrants. The decision did not affect the SANDF`s mandate to protect the country from foreign invasion. Mthetwa`s latest comments seemingly confuse the two functions.

Military sources have long warned that the police lacked the training, equipment and logistics to take over the borderline function. They add the Army was already instructed in March not to withdraw from its last border bases on the Zimbabwe frontier. The sources have welcomed the government`s turnabout on the subject but warn that the Joint Operations establishment, which is tasked with conducting deployments, have already dipped into the borderline budget allocation to pay for Confederations Cup and Soccer World Cup preparations.

Former Defence minister Charles Nqakula said in March that although the SANDF is involved in both events, it had not by then received a budget allocation to pay for its allocated role.

In addition, the current government and defence budgets that came into effect on April 1 also do not provide funding to Joint Operations for borderline patrol.

Cash-in-transit guards

The Independent Group`s papers add that Mthethwa also wants the Army to escort cash-in-transit trucks to deter organised crime syndicates.
“If you look at other countries, the issue of transporting money is a joint operation between security forces.” A large percentage of trained soldiers were part of the reserve force and could be brought in for this purpose. Their role would be to patrol the streets,” he reportedly said.

Patrols in support of the police are a task reminiscent of that performed by the commandos in recent years. The last commando was disbanded last year after a decision made by the Mbeki administration in 2003. At the time it was believed the military had no business on the nations` streets, while commandos, especially in rural areas were seen as weapon of intimidation in the hands of white farmers.   

Several military and security analysts spoke out against the decision at the time, calling it nonsense.  

The military sources warn that there is currently no budget to deploy soldiers in this role. The military also lack the equipment – such as shotguns, teargas and less-than-lethal ammunition – as well as training to deal with crowds while their high-power assault rifles can cause considerable harm to bystanders in firefights with criminals. The military would be liable for injuries and damage to property.

They also caution that years of underspending on vehicle maintenance – the result of money being reallocated to meet unfunded mandates – has left the military and specially the Army desperately short of roadworthy troop transports. A source amplifies that there is currently not sufficient armoured personnel carriers to support simultaneously both borderline protection and the soccer events. If true, there are also no vehicles for urban patrols or cash-in-transit escort duty.             


Torch commando

Meanwhile, Mthetwa’s deputy and former ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula reportedly told the papers the government was “planning to embark on an ambitious plan to recruit thousands of unemployed young people to become part of the fight against crime in their respective communities.”

He is quoted saying the project is part of the government’s “war” against crime. Young people would receive basic training in self-defence and guarding and would be incorporated into community policing forums. Their role would be to patrol the streets and notify the police of any crime witnessed.

But the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has scoffed at the idea, saying “Mbalula is clearly out of his depth if he thinks that unemployed youths, armed with torches, can be sent out to patrol the streets with a public relations course for protection.”

Party police spokeswoman Dianne Kohler Barnard says the “DA believes that Deputy Minister Mbalula and the rest of his Department need to focus very intensely on sorting out existing problems within the SAPS, including its substandard training programmes, before creating yet further complex programme for implementation.

“The SAPS is already tasked with dealing with community safety. It is also already tasked with training up new recruits, and these recruits include in many instances young people who were previously unemployed. For this reason, the programme announced by the deputy minister amounts to duplication…”