In democracies, military forces are not generally used to maintain law and order. That is the job of the police. Military forces are trained to defend the country against external aggressors and to do rescue work in times of disaster such as serious train crashes, earthquakes and large-scale flooding. The line does become somewhat blurred with peace-keeping forces being sent to countries ravaged by civil war and disruption. South Africa has played an honourable and vital role in this regard on our continent.
However, to summon troops to restore law and order in our townships is something not to be encouraged, not least because such deployment is anathema to democrats who correctly see the role of the military as a military one and not a policing one.
Despite that, it would be terribly short-sighted to oppose the deployment of troops to the townships of the Western Cape. Murder is rampant, gangs have taken over and life is impossible for the vast majority of decent and law-abiding people. The arrival of the SANDF ought to be applauded; 43 murders in one weekend creates a situation as serious as a war-zone and justifies newspaper headlines to the effect that Cape Town has become the murder capital of the world.
This situation did not start yesterday. Helen Zille, the DA premier of the Western Cape called years ago for the deployment of troops to the Western Cape because the situation had deteriorated badly and many innocents were losing their lives. The ANC government refused the request, lecturing her and the DA about democratic theory and the role of the military. Thousands of crimes and many hundreds of murders later, the blood of victims is on the hands of successive police ministers and the government that failed to act.
The Western Cape has a startling shortage of police officers compared to the rest of SA. Some wonder whether this is “payment” by the authorities for the citizens daring to vote for the DA. They have 1 policeman for 543 citizens, whereas other provinces are far better staffed. The ideal would be 1 for every 200 citizens.
In addition, the police are badly trained, inefficiently led, with many prone to corruption, all leading to a disturbing loss of confidence in the SAPS by the general public. The police are often seen and accused of being part of the problem, with gangs holding them in thrall with bribes and threats and being in control of several of the townships. Criminals run rampant and the community suffers in the face of their crimes.
The deployment of troops gives the SAPS time to start detecting crime, investigating cases and arresting accused persons. They should also be able to regroup and have time to recruit, begin training and sending police officers from elsewhere in the country to ensure that law and order is maintained when the military personnel leave. It is encouraging that Premier Alan Winde is already planning and foreshadowing active steps by the Western Cape for that time and these include finding funds, shaking up the Police Reservists and encouraging the members of the community to assist in restoring peace and calm by co-operating with the SAPS.
One hopes these steps will lead to a better life for ordinary citizens. They should not have to live in fear for their own and their children’s lives. Cape Town is the jewel in the crown of the tourist industry and it must be made safe for citizens and for visitors if we are to reap the huge benefits increased tourism will bring.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.
This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.