Soldiers and police put the lid on Eastern Cape violence ahead of Election Day

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Mthatha-headquartered 14 SA Infantry (SAI) Battalion was mobilised ahead of Election Day to assist police stopping violence and rioting in the Eastern Cape town.

The town, with an estimated population of 213 000 and capital of the now defunct Transkei, was plunged into violence on Monday with taxis and trucks stopped, looted and, in some instances, burnt. There were also reports of shots being fired. This saw provincial premier Oscar Mabuyane call for military assistance to strengthen the SA Police Service (SAPS) presence, which was also bolstered by police public order policing units.

SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and SAPS communication officers used social media to alert and inform residents – and the rest of South Africa – of developments.

Second Lieutenant Malihlangane Miya attached to the SANDF Joint Operations Division reported 14 SAI was tasked to secure Mthatha Airport, which was shut down after armed men threatened to burn it down. “The battalion worked purposefully to restore order and protect the facility from damage.” Among those affected were SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) members stranded without transport on returning from a meeting. 14 SAI Acting Officer Commanding, Major Andile Binza, arranged temporary accommodation and food at the unit.

Ahead of the 14 SAI deployment, SANDF Chief General Rudzani Maphwanya and his SAPS counterpart, National Commissioner Genera Fannie Masemola, were in Mthatha monitoring developments including a briefing by the Eastern Cape Premier.

Reports, not confirmed by police or the SANDF, have it 15 people were arrested.

Order was mostly restored in Mthatha on Tuesday, with roads reopened. The protests disrupted traffic, flights, car rental and other services on Monday. Hospitals were forced to operate with a skeleton staff, and the casting of special votes in the region was also disrupted.

The protests were in part due to service delivery concerns but triggered by taxi operators following a crackdown by authorities after an outbreak of violence last week. Police had confiscated 38 pistols and five rifles from a group of people belonging to a taxi organisation who gathered at the Nelson Mandela Hospital in Mthatha. This came after a shootout between taxi factions in Maclear that saw three taxi operators killed last week. Security guards were at the hospital to guard the wounded taxi drivers when they their weapons were seized, SABC reported.

Most of the weapons were returned to the association on Monday afternoon, halting the protest action, DispatchLIVE reported.

Soldiers could be seen guarding voting stations in Mthatha on Wednesday. A total of 2 828 SANDF members were authorised to be deployed for the maintenance and preservation of law and order during the National and Provincial Election period.

The employment of the SANDF personnel will form part of Operation Prosper and applies from 20 May to 7 June 2024. The expenditure for this employment is estimated at R59 451 704.