Balancing the right to safety and security and the right to demonstrate


The single constant of public order policing is balancing the rights of people to stage protests with the right to public order and safety and security, says Dianne Kohler Barnard, the DA’s Shadow Minister of Police. This is especially important regarding the rising use of technology by protestors and the development of public order strategy and policy.

“The right to demonstrate is exponentially diminished by the police authority to determine the need for public order,” Kohler Barnard said today during defenceWeb’s Public Order Policing conference.
“Here in South Africa, as in any other democracy, the citizens have the right to assemble and protest peacefully – with due regard to the rights of others…It must not be forgotten that the vast majority of protestors at events act reasonably and peacefully, but the right to freedom of assembly does not extend to protests where the organisers and participants have violent or other criminal intentions. Nor does it protect those who use, incite or provoke violence. Those rights stop where they infringe the rights of others.”

She says that post 1994, the police in South Africa became a citizen-friendly service (rather than a force), but the South African Police Service (SAPS) is being challenged by an ‘inordinate number’ of public protests. According to the SAPS, last year 13 282 public gatherings took place in South Africa.
“Public order officers are specially trained to resolve conflicts and keep the peace at such gatherings. Or they should be,” Kohler Barnard says. “As a nation we expect them to be able to – yet in recent months we’ve seen a move back to the aggressive crowd-management style that was commonplace during the Apartheid era – the shooting, the smoke grenades…the killing.”

According to Professor Elrena van der Spuy, the orthodox view of public order policing under apartheid was that it was a prime example of zero tolerance policing: dictatorial, inflexible and repressive. There were several ingredients that resulted in such a situation, including a minority regime, a hostile state, disenchanted people, a political battle, a culture of violence, and the criminalisation of public protest.
“The ranks were recently changed back to the Apartheid-era militaristic ones that had been deliberately dismissed in an attempt to start with a clean slate,” Kohler Barnard says.
“The POP units are a crime preventing and crime fighting entity whose management has some harsh realities to face,” she says. “It should then surely be of immense concern that…the SAPS are still planning when it comes to Public Order Policing.”

Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the ISS, recently said that, “the SAPS does not possess adequate skills and capacity to professionally respond to a number of the challenges it faces including maintaining public order.”
“It has become increasingly apparent that the SAPS have fallen behind in this crucial area,” Kohler Barnard says, noting that the role of the police is to facilitate peaceful protests, allowing protestors to have their voices heard, whilst still protecting the safety and rights of others. She warns that the police have been shifting towards aggression when dealing with protests.
“The scientific literature overwhelmingly supports the contention that collective conflict can emerge during crowd events as a consequence of the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of police force.”

According to South Africa’s Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), which is charged with investigating all deaths resulting from police action, 568 people were shot dead by the police in 2008/09, more than double the number just three years earlier, and the highest number since the ICD was established in 1997. The number remained high during 2009/2010 with 524 people shot dead. In addition, independent Complaints Directorate figures showing that the number of police assaults rose from 1380 in 2007-2008 to 1667 in 2009-2010.

Kohler Barnard avers that the SAPS believes crowds are dangerous, which leads to a self fulfilling prophecy.

Kohler Barnard warns of the increasing use of technology in public protests and the importance of being prepared to deal with such ‘New Age Public Disorder’. “As a nation we have to ask if our SAPS POP units are ready, for example, for that which was experienced in the UK recently where rioters shared their riot news, best looting sites and experiences on Twitter.
“Public Order Policing management ignore at their peril the capacity of technologically empowered citizens to produce evidence that may well challenge the ‘official’ version of events.”
“The fear is that we’ve moved on so far that we’re possibly ignoring the lessons of the past – ignoring the possibility that police actions may well contribute to, or even act as the spark that sets off, conflict. And if we ignore this reality, then SAPS management may well in turn ignore the need to develop strategies, tactics and technologies to deal with these situations.”

Kohler Barnard concludes that successful public order policing requires consistent command-and-control, training, tactics and equipment. “This is equally so for overt and covert operations, investigations, intelligence work, surveillance operations, and the use of firearms.”

It should be noted that in late August the ministry of police announced a new policy that calls for the establishment of public order policing units with the South African Police Service, the better training of personnel, adequate intelligence to predict riots, the establishment of contingency plans and the reequipment of police forces. This should go a long way in adequately training and equipping police to deal with public protests and should result in a decrease in violence.