Automatic weapons should not be used on protesters says policing report

2021-03-29

Pretoria, South Africa – The ISS welcomes an expert report on policing that notes the constitutional right to peaceful protest and says automatic weapons should never be used for crowd management.

The report of the Panel of Experts on Policing and Crowd Management was released today (Monday 29 March) by South Africa’s Minister of Police Bheki Cele. The panel was set up in April 2016 under Judge David Ntshangase, in line with the recommendations of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. The commission was established after police killed 34 striking miners at Marikana in August 2012.

The police priority at Marikana should have been to ensure no further loss of life in a complex situation where some police and strikers had already died. But the police operation was led by an officer with no recent training or experience in crowd management, planning was rushed, and commanders knew deaths were likely to follow, the panel’s 595-page report said.

The Marikana police operation primarily relied on tactical units armed with high-velocity R5 rifles capable of automatic fire. There was a lack of discipline and poor police communication, and police undermined their own negotiations, the report said. Few of the police had first aid training, and they did not believe they had a duty to assist people shot by their colleagues.

The aim of the panel was to provide recommendations to help the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) to become more professional, promote public safety and uphold the rights of all people in SA. A key focus of the panel’s report is on public order policing and crowd management. Its report said current guidance to police regarding use of force was inadequate and that protection of life should be a guiding principle.

‘The report is released at an important time following a long decline in policing and public safety,’ said Gareth Newham, head of the ISS Justice and Violence Prevention programme, who served on the panel.

The panel called for a professional, demilitarised and accountable police service led by experienced, competent, honest and credible leadership and for a system of crowd management that respects the Constitutional right to freedom of assembly.

‘The SAPS is facing significant organisational challenges that prevent the most effective use of its current R101 billion budget. Most notable is the declining ability to bring to justice the perpetrators of violent crimes like murder, robbery and rape. In addition, SAPS are increasingly confronted by a large and growing number of public order incidents each year,’ Newham said.

‘Many hard working and honest police officers are inadequately equipped, supported and rewarded. We’ve seen a recent and worrying spike in the killings of police officials, and too few police officials who act unlawfully are held accountable.’

The panel included top local and international police officers, police unions, and non-government experts. Its report makes 136 recommendations aimed at improving police professionalisation, accountability and integrity, and enabling SAPS to better manage protests by improving training and equipment and amending laws and regulations.

It calls for greater police competence and accountability in a professional and demilitarised service, and says use of force should comply with human rights principles and focus on protection of life. It noted that police have a duty to care for injured persons. The panel found SAPS culture does not value honesty or support critical reflection when things go wrong.

The report noted that most protests in South Africa are peaceful, and peaceful protestors should not be deprived of their right to protest by the violent conduct of others. The potential for violence should be minimised through negotiation and de-escalation measures. Police should avoid indiscriminate use of force, and where force is necessary it should be targeted only against those involved in violence.

The report presents a significant opportunity to start a process that reimagines and renews policing in South Africa. Starting in April the ISS will host a series of public seminars to discuss its findings. 

For further information, contact:

Gareth Newham, +27 82 8871 557, [email protected]

Photo: ISS

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