On Tuesday 10 October South Africa’s police minister issued a call for the South African military to intervene into the ganglands of Cape Town. The move was widely praised by local residents in areas such as Manenberg and Philippi East, which experience widespread violence and near-daily shootings, and where a military intervention understandably looks like a godsend. But putting troops in the streets of Cape Town would be a dangerous, reckless last resort. DARREN OLIVIER and JOHN STUPART navigate the slippery slope.

It would be disingenuous to argue that deploying the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to areas riddled with violent crime would be detrimental from start to finish.  Those in favour of the move have made the case for there being benefits to sending the army to patrol in areas where the SAPS are too thinly spread. The murder of 11 residents in Philippi East in early October illustrated the lawlessness that has become a pervasive and unacceptable new normal for residents in gang-affected areas. Armed soldiers, while not able to exercise many of the legal powers of the police, would contribute to a larger visible presence of armed security personnel that may be able to at least discourage brazen gang attacks. Perhaps counterintuitively, the average South African soldier’s equipment and ballistic protection is roughly comparable to that of the average policeman. As a result, soldiers would not function as a substantial “force multiplier” as claimed by the minister, but would not function – technically speaking – with any particular disadvantages.

Find, Fix, Finish

That said, troops patrolling streets alongside police is a major escalation in the state’s response. Soldiers are trained to ‘find, fix and finish’ their ‘enemy’, but in the policing scenario they are being used in they will be facing communities and individuals whose ‘enemy’ elements are indistinguishable from ordinary civilians, even were one to take for granted that such terminology and the view of the population that it implies were appropriate to this context. Which is manifestly is not. Without powers of arrest or investigation, and without the training in community policing that even the SAPS struggles with, the SANDF’s default response to violence will be to shoot first and ask questions later. Politicians and policymakers should not, therefore, be surprised when the army they’ve placed in the townships begins behaving like an army.

That might sound like a good idea to residents of Cape Town’s ganglands. But when civilian ‘collateral damage’ starts to accrue, this public sentiment will likely change. But once deployed and operating, the military is a difficult force to peel back from its SAPS cohorts. In addition, there is a risk that the SAPS could begin facing a rapid and violent escalation by criminals that were not prepared for. After all, patrolling with the military creates an association between policeman and soldier that potentially draws all involved into processes of crime ‘fighting’ and resistance whose rules and conduct come to bear more of the signature elements of the military than the police.

Looking at the terrain in which the SANDF will be operating, one can immediately see that the armoured vehicles and ‘muscle’ inherent in an infantry battalion is rendered useless in a township setting. This is because the labyrinthine geography of Cape Town’s townships heavily impede anything but foot patrols. The SANDF barely trains for urban environments, but this would be testing even the world’s most elite military forces. On top of this, as a result of the reduced legal powers that soldiers have when supporting the police it’s likely that the rules of engagement under which they deploy will be relatively strict, as has been the case in previous deployments. This means that, paradoxically, soldiers will be very hesitant to use any force at first while having no option but to use overwhelming and deadly force if cornered, whereas police are able to employ a much more gradual spectrum of options. Soldiers are also not trained to patrol urban areas in groups of one or two while obtaining information, as police are, but to move purposefully through the objective area in sections of 10 soldiers working together. Given this, plus the likelihood that soldiers will not receive adequate support and information from the already-overburdened police, as well as the brazen initiative shown by gangs, and it’s entirely plausible to foresee gang members taking advantage of the inexperience of soldiers in policing and selectively targeting their squads to split them up, isolate them, and steal their weapons.

In short, the expense and effort of deploying soldiers to gang territories will be exacerbated by the same logistical and operational problems that the SAPS has. This is precisely the problem experienced by Brazilian military in their attempts to police the favelas, where lawlessness and drug-related organised crime remains rife. After numerous setbacks, the Brazilian military was forced to establish dedicated policing units and to permanently take over many jobs that should have been conducted by regular civilian police.

It is also exactly the same dynamic that ensnared the SANDF when they handed over border security duties to the police in the 1990s, only to be forced later to return to the task when the SAPS proved unable to perform the task and unwilling to build the capability. Although this was initially meant to be merely a temporary situation to allow the police the space to reform and grow, the military’s presence on the border soon became a permanent task for which it has never received adequate funding. Instead of improving border security, the use of the SANDF simply burdened another government ministry with exactly the same problems as before, while kicking the can of police reform further down the road.

Asking Too Much

All of this skirts around the unpleasant reality that the South African military is in no shape to be doing anything inside South African borders (or externally for that matter). The lack of appropriate budget and zero contingency plan by the defence department has resulted in the institutional “rot” that the Defence Review warned about in 2012. Ironically the Review also offered little in the form of a “plan B” either. What this translates to is a SANDF that has no troops to help the police, and no capacity to develop such forces in the future.

Although there are 78 000 people employed in total by the SANDF, most are not combat-oriented infantry and can’t be used for this role. Approximately 12 000 are civilians employed in a number of administrative and technical roles, of the remaining 66 000 only around 37 000 are in the South African Army, the rest are part of the Navy, Air Force, Medical Health Service, and others corps and not well-suited to infantry tasks.

Of those 37 000 in the Army, a significant proportion are in support formations like logistics or in technically-specialised units such as 1 SA Tank Regiment and 4 SA Artillery Regiment, and thus not well-suited to infantry tasks either. For units that can effectively conduct infantry operations and back up the police the only option are the fourteen infantry units, which consist of eight motorised battalions, two mechanised battalions, one light (internal security) battalion, one airborne battalion, one air assault battalion, and one seaborne battalion.

However, at any given time one reinforced battalion is posted to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and at least four battalions are performing border patrol duties, leaving just nine remaining. But those nine are not necessarily available, as they’re going through various phases of the pre-deployment, post-deployment, reintegration, and training phases that either precede or succeed their own active deployments. Pulling troops from them to perform ad hoc missions without sufficient advance planning means that the deployment cycle might be interrupted, with new soldiers being introduced into units having their operational integration and training cut short, soldiers getting less time with families than they were promised, and pre-deployment preparation or post-deployment debriefs being rushed.

A similar problem exists with using South African Air Force aircraft. The Air Force’s internal maintenance and planning systems track the state and availability of all its aircraft and personnel and to allow for complex scheduling for maintenance periods, upgrades, and training while ensuring that the minimum mandated number of aircraft and crew are always available. This includes aircraft dedicated to missions, such as the five Oryx medium lift helicopters and three Rooivalk attack helicopters deployed to the DRC, as well as at least one helicopter on 24 hour standby at each base for search and rescue & disaster response missions. With advance warning the schedules can be shifted around to make more aircraft and crews available without doing too much harm to maintenance and training, but if aircraft are needed at very short notice those carefully-planned schedules go out the window and have to be redone, with aircraft potentially missing maintenance slots (and needing more downtime later) and aircrews missing important training courses.

Of course, this can all be sustained in an emergency war or disaster response situation where troops, vehicles, ships, and aircraft are needed immediately and military planners can count on a quiet period afterward to catch up on the missed items. That is after all what a defence force is meant for. But an open-ended large-scale deployment in support of the SAPS in the Western Cape and Gauteng won’t allow for any catch-up period, it’ll be a constant and relentless stretching of the already under-strength SANDF and will result in lower-quality soldiers, more vehicle and aircraft breakdowns, and lower morale.

An emergency is also the situation for which reserve forces are well-suited, but as a result of decades of underfunding only a tiny fraction of the 12 000 reserve soldiers in the SANDF are at deployable capability and most are already engaged in supporting border patrols. In any case, reserves should be used only for relatively short periods of time, as those who have full-time jobs are lost to the economy while deployed.

The danger in treating the SANDF as a limitless source of backup to the police, while neither force receives the necessary increases in funding and personnel, is that it’s likely to accelerate the defence force’s downward spiral toward lower quality and less availability.

On this there can be no confusion: policing in South Africa is difficult, highly technical work. It is in essence a problem of managing communities rather than opposing forces, building a strong foundation of visible policing and informant networks rather than retaining elements of surprise and outflanking enemies. The SANDF can only assist with the former, and poorly so even then. In the military’s world, as is appropriate there, there are only targets.

Playing to each others’ strengths

In any event, this is an unimaginative approach. The SANDF could play useful, possibly vital roles in countering violent crime and gangsterism in Cape Town that do not involve attempting a township occupation. A host of technical support roles can be filled with SANDF expertise such as air lift support, aerial reconnaissance, long-range video cameras, night-vision equipment, and the utilisation of the SANDF’s Project Legend command and control system and protocols to help build a better picture for police on the ground.

Ideally this should be done as part of a unified anti-gang task force that included the expertise and assets of the police, the State Security Agency, and the SANDF in ways which better exploits the unique attributes each brings to the table. This was the template for the security operation that surrounded the 2010 Football World Cup, which was run via specialised joint command centres that evolved into the NATJOINTS and PROVJOINTS structures of today.

Were this the intention, the ‘force multiplier’ rhetoric by Minister Mbalula would not seem quite so outlandish.  This sort of co-operation has been done before and doing so again would not be a ridiculous proposition, provided it were properly controlled and of a fixed duration.

But an open-ended and badly-planned deployment, in which soldiers are just used as additional muscle in the hope that it’ll be sufficiently intimidating, is doomed to fail. Even if they are effective in the short term, sooner or later those soldiers will have to be withdrawn and we’ll be back to square one with an unreformed and poorly-trained police force and no long-term answer to the problems of gangs and other serious criminals.