Mthethwa approves new police policy on public protests

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Police minister Nathi Mthethwa today approved a policy, which has been months in the works, for the police to better manage public protests.

“The policy and guidelines must guide the SAPS in developing appropriate, effective operational strategies and systems in the policing of public protests which must restore and enhance confidence of the communities,” Mthethwa said.

The policy calls for an establishment of a dedicated National Public Order Policing (POPs) Unit within the South African Police Service (SAPS). Such a unit was indeed established during 1996 but during 2002 and 2006 the POP unit was restructured by the SAPS and effectively disbanded.

South Africa has experienced a growing number of protest actions and unrests which, in some instances are accompanied by serious provocation, intimidation, public violence and even elements of criminality. For instance, supporters of ANC Youth League President Julius Malema clashed with police in violent protests outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg while school students fought with police north of the city today.

Research conducted during the formulation of the policy showed that SAPS personnel were inadequately trained in crowd management and control (public order policing). Mthethwa said that the success of effective response by the SAPS to any public protest situation is dependent on a strong line of command and control.
“SAPS Commanders must have negotiation skills and be able to use these skills during gatherings. In the case of a planned gathering, the commanders must be able to negotiate with the organizers of the gathering, or the person nominated for this purpose, as and when required or necessary. In the event of an unplanned gathering, commanding officers must be able to identify key leaders from the group with whom they can negotiate.”

The police ministry said that in cases of spontaneous public protests, each province must facilitate the development of contingency plans up to police station level or at least cluster level. Mthethwa said that police reaction to protests has been uncoordinated while there seems to be no purpose on the side of the SAPS but solely to guard the protest.
“Firstly, the SAPS must introduce measures to ensure cordoning off of certain areas and restrict the protest to routes and areas less significant and minimum opportunity for damage to property or threats to the person. Secondly, the SAPS must employ the best possible formation to prevent provocation; target leaders of the pack for later interrogation and ensure that each protest is covered by video recording. This might come in handy during case investigation or for identifying possible perpetrators in criminal cases,” he added.

The police ministry emphasised the importance of ensuring all the required and necessary equipment is procured. The minimum equipment required includes body armour and helmets, shields, batons, water cannons (some already procured for crowd control during the 2010 FIFA World Cup), armoured vehicles (some of the current fleet needs replacement) as well as specified calibre firearms and ammunition. Another important area of equipment is video surveillance equipment. “The use of such video equipment will not only assist the police in securing prosecutions where criminal acts occur but will also allow the police to make use of material gathered during the videoing of such events for training and debriefings,” the ministry said.

Intelligence is an important factor in the success of public order policing. A threat analysis must be conducted throughout the country to identify protest hotspots, stated the policy.

The ministry said that whilst the police have a responsibility to police public protest, gatherings and events, the Gatherings Act confers considerable responsibilities on conveners or organizers of events to ensure that such events are carried out in an orderly and peaceful manner and that any contravention of this must result in the organisers facing criminal charges.

Presenting the policy in Parliament today, Secretary for Police, Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane pointed out that in developing the policy, the SAPS needs to ensure that policing approach is in line with the Constitutions and that the police must not increase tensions with the community.
“One challenge facing the police is that the policing of public protests, demonstrations and gathering draws the police away from their normal policing activities and forces the police to redirect resources from their normal day to day policing activities. This can lead to gaps in normal policing which are sharpened when the police personnel deployed to the policing of such events are drawn from local stations,” Irish-Qhobosheane said. The new policy should address such concerns.

For more on this subject, consider attending defenceWeb‘s Public Order Policing conference at Gallagher Estate on October 3-4.

For more information contact Maggie Pienaar at ++27 11 807 3294 or [email protected]

A detailed programme is available here.