Blaming militarisation for police brutality is aiming at the wrong target


The death of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia after being dragged behind a police van in Daveyton has again focused attention on the problem of police brutality. Questions are being asked about whether this misconduct can be linked to the recent ‘militarisation’ of the South African Police Service (SAPS). For example, former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, in a letter to the Mail & Guardian on 6 March 2013, blames the ‘banana-state militarisation of the police’ for police brutality. Jenny Schreiner, Director-General in the Department of Economic Development, is quoted in the IOL of 8 March 2013 as having called for ‘the urgent demilitarisation of the police force’.

The Daveyton incident happened on 26 February 2013 in full view of a large group of onlookers, some of whom captured it on video. This came in the wake of a number of other widely publicised cases involving excessive use of force by the police and similar exposure through video footage. The most pertinent of these were the killing of Andries Tatane during a service delivery protest march in Ficksburg on 13 April 2011 and the killing of 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana’s Lonmin mine on 16 August 2012. The shocking video images of these incidents of police brutality sparked a renewed debate on whether these abuses can be linked to the militarisation of the police.

While the prevalence of unacceptable levels of police brutality is not in dispute, arguments about police militarisation as the cause of the problem are less convincing. It is necessary to consider what is meant by police militarism and how it relates to the functions and powers of the police. When trying to understand the causes of police brutality, it is also necessary to look objectively at statistics and other information before simply blaming it on police militarisation.

All police agencies, in varying degrees, exhibit elements of militarism as discussed in ISS Today on 14 September 2010 ( Where police agencies such as that of the United Kingdom sought to change this in the 1980s by, for example, replacing the term ‘force’ with ‘service’, the result was largely superficial and has had very little practical value. The police in South Africa, like the military, are armed and legally authorised to use coercive force when justified. The police are also authorised by law, in particular circumstances, to limit the free movement of people and to arrest and detain and, like the military, normally perform their duties in uniform with a visible display of rank.

The formidable powers of the police and the often extremely dangerous and unpredictable situations they face require that they align themselves with the kind of strict discipline, training, and command and control practices that are normally associated with the military. Alignment with some of the desired practices of the military, as with good practices in any other institution, does not in any way suggest that the police should duplicate the military, which has a completely different mandate.

If it is accepted that elements of militarism are inherent in all police agencies, what exactly do politicians mean when they refer to ‘militarisation’ and to what extent has the SAPS in fact become militarised? This question is dealt with in detail in ISS Today on 6 December 2012 ( Statements by the President, the Minister of Police and the National Commissioner over the past few years made it clear that the intended militarisation process was about much more than re-establishing these inherent elements. In fact, militarisation in this context bordered dangerously close on establishing an alternative military institution. However, except for the ranks, none of the other intended changes materialised.

It is, however, instructive to note one of the stated reasons given by politicians for wanting to militarise the police. The Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, in a press statement on 12 March 2010 said that this was about ‘instilling command and control’ within the police. This was repeated by the then SAPS National Commissioner, Bheki Cele, in a letter dated 31 March 2010 to SAPS commanders, in which he said that the new rank structure ‘should facilitate the enhancement of discipline, instilling public confidence and the upliftment of morale within the police ranks’.

These statements appear to acknowledge findings from internal police reports that poor command and control and discipline is at the heart of most of the problems. For example, in its report to the National Commissioner in 2008, the SAPS’ Policy Advisory Council found that ‘many of the problems of the police are the direct result of a breakdown in command and control and a lack of supervision - In most instances poor service delivery, maladministration, ill discipline and corruption have at its core the lack of supervision and control’.

Police agencies across the world generally share similar responsibilities and legal powers. In most cases they are armed and trained in the use of force, including deadly force. When command and control systems are weak, chances are that these powers will be abused. However, even in countries where control systems are generally well established, incidents of police brutality still happen. For example, in Australia between 2007 and 2012 there was a 21% increase in complaints of police brutality (from 175 to 212). There is also an array of video material and other examples of police brutality in developed countries available on the Internet. A case in point is the infamous 1991 police brutality incident involving Rodney King in Los Angeles, where the eventual acquittal of the police officers sparked riots.

It is difficult to accurately measure police brutality in South Africa. Claims, such as that by the Democratic Alliance’s Dianne Kohler-Barnard (reported in News24 on 12 March 2013) that ‘civil claims against the police ‘ [can be] directly linked to the militarisation of the police’ or that police brutality is a result of the tough talk by Cele, are not supported by the available facts. According to the annual reports of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the number of deaths as a result of police action or in police custody decreased by 10% in the past year and by 21% (from 912 to 720) since 2009, when Cele became National Commissioner. Unfortunately, the IPID reports do not distinguish between deaths as a result of lawful or unlawful acts. Criminal cases opened against members of the police by the IPID rose by 363% from 531 in 2001/02 to 2 462 in 2009/10. However, the situation appeared to have stabilised in 2010/11, when there was a 1,3% increase, before criminal cases against the police decreased by 7% to 2 320 in 2011/12.

As much as ‘militarisation’ was not the answer to the problems facing the SAPS in 2010, so too will ‘demilitarisation’ or another change in the police rank system miss the fundamental issues. These include weak command and control and a lack of proper internal oversight structures that ultimately result in poor discipline. What is needed is the appointment of capable officers to senior positions as well as internal structures that can hold them accountable. As Gareth Newham points out in his analysis of the crisis facing the SAPS in ISS Today on 7 March 2013 (, the foundation for addressing these problems is already provided in government’s 2011 National Development Plan (NDP). All that is now needed is the political will to implement.

Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria


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