by Jane Duncan, SACSIS
What ails South Africa’s security cluster? The military has been mired in controversy recently over the cluster’s lack of transparency. Questions that have been asked and answered in the public domain for years about the military’s use of resources are not being answered now on grounds of ‘national security’.
Nyami Booi has been fired as Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Defence, for taking the Zuma administration’s professed commitment to an activist Parliament too seriously, and attempting to hold the executive to account over the non-release of a report about low morale and poor working conditions in the military.
Then Parliament was hit with a censorship row, with an Inkatha Freedom Party Member of Parliament (MP) reportedly having his Parliamentary question into the possible surveillance of MP’s communications censored by a member of the Parliamentary staff.
As Bryan Rostron has pointed out recently, these incidents suggest that the government’s secrecy laws are already in effect in the security cluster. If this conduct is allowed to continue unchallenged, then self-serving politicians and officials will be tempted to stretch the definition of national security like an elastic band to censor inconvenient truths.
The Defence Department’s recent bout of opacity must be set in a bigger context of greater executive control of the justice, crime prevention and security cluster. This centralisation of power means that the spaces that exist for independent oversight of the cluster, not only by Parliament, but by civil society, are being eroded. Freedom of expression within and about the security cluster – which is essential to check attempts at overt manipulation – is being systematically destroyed.
Furthermore, any attempt to undermine the principle of civilian control of the military, via Parliament or the courts, is to be condemned as a step back to the apartheid era.
In this regard, it is disturbing to note that in the recent court battle between the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) and the government – over the provisional dismissal of soldiers supposedly involved in a march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest about poor working conditions – the government apparently argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the review of military commands, as such power would endanger national security. The judge was clearly not impressed, as the government lost the case.
By connecting more dots, it becomes clear that the problem is bigger than an attack on freedom of information, Parliamentary and judicial oversight. More fundamentally, the democratic underpinnings of the cluster, put in place after apartheid, are under attack as well.
A twin process is taking place where the police are being militarised, while the military is subject to increasingly tight control. These factors combined increase the chances of the sorts of abuse of security apparatuses that occurred during Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
There are signs that the Zuma administration is rethinking the police’s identity and even their very role in society. In April, the government announced that it intended introducing a military ranking system into the-then South African Police Service (SAPS) and to revert back to the apartheid era name of the South African Police Force (SAPF).
The change does not appear to be a matter of nomenclature only. According to the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthetwa, this shift was informed by a new seriousness in fighting crime, and should be accompanied by changes in ‘attitude, thinking and operational duties’ on the part of the police.
While South Africans would welcome any relief from crime, this shift towards militarisation of the police, combined with enhanced police powers to use lethal force, bears more scrutiny, as it could be dangerous. It could reverse key transformation gains, where – in the words of the Institute for Security Studies’ Johan Berger – the ethos of law enforcement (control), enforced by a police ‘force’, was replaced by the ethos of community orientated policing (care), rendered by a police ‘service’.
The trade union movement can and should play an important role in checking the growing culture of authoritarianism in the cluster, which the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) has done recently by criticising the police’s militarisation and its democratic implications. According to Popcru, militarisation will foster a policing culture where lower ranking officers are required to follow orders blindly, even if the orders are not in the interests of the community they claim to serve.
The dangers are clear: when a law and order mentality supersedes a community safety mentality, conditions are created for abuse of power. Politicians will find it easier to manipulate the police to repress dissenting voices.
Under Zuma’s administration, there have been troubling signs of the Executive and the SAPF taking an inappropriate lead in the policing of protests, effecting blanket prohibition of protests in certain cases. Blanket bans of protests were practically unheard of under Mbeki.
According to the Regulation of Gatherings Act (RGA), decision making about whether to allow gatherings or not rests with the local authority, and not with the SAPF (although they must be consulted) or any other affected party such as a government department.
Yet, in the wake of the SANDU march, the Presidency banned all marches to the Union Buildings. In March, the MEC for Community Safety banned all marches in Gauteng in the wake of the service delivery protests. In April, the Sebokeng cluster of the SAPF banned all marches in the Vaal until after the World Cup. Then in May, evidence emerged of a blanket SAPF ban on all marches in all municipalities hosting World Cup matches, which was successfully challenged in at least two Municipalities.
To the extent that these blanket prohibitions were initiated by the SAPF or the executive, they unlawfully usurped Municipal powers and functions in the regulation of gatherings, and implied that the government saw the protests as national security threats rather than pure traffic management concerns.
The events surrounding the SANDU’s march to the union buildings are contested, as are the validity of the army’s grounds for having sought a prohibition of the march in the first place. In spite of most media having unquestioningly parroted the Ministry’s version of events, it is disputable that an illegal march actually took place that day, as the movement of soldiers from one venue to another with the assistance of the police – after having heard the court judgement to prohibit the march delivered half an hour earlier – hardly constitutes a march.
Furthermore, the union’s account of events strongly suggests that the march turned violent once the police used excessive force to contain an isolated incident. The soldiers filmed scaling the Union Building’s fences were not trying to climb in, but were trying to climb out of an enclosure to escape police firing rubber bullets at point blank range. Yet, in spite of these disputes of fact, the Ministry has used this incident as a pretext to ban other marches by military personnel.
The censorship of protests on the grounds of national security is likely to radicalise protestors, as ‘injustice frames’ are created around the government, which may prompt a shift from legal to illegal and increasingly violent forms of protest.
In spite of the fact that the SANDU has since won its case against the government for unconstitutional provisional dismissal of the soldiers who were accused of participating in the march (they were dismissed via a press conference, without a hearing) – thereby proving once again the indispensible role of unions in protecting soldier’s rights – the military unions are under consistent attack. In the wake of the 2009 march, the ANC and Democratic Alliance (DA) have called for the de-unionisation of the military on the grounds that unions create a parallel command structure that undermines the official chain of command.
This is despite a Constitutional Court ruling recognising that the military had the right to unionise and engage in protest action. The parties have clearly chosen to ignore judge Albie Sachs’s warning at the time, ‘a blindly obedient soldier represents a greater threat to the Constitutional order and the peace of the realm, than one who regards him or herself as a citizen in uniform, sensitive to his or her responsibilities and rights under the Constitution’.
Furthermore, it would seem that the Ministry of Defence’s strategy is to render the unions superfluous through the establishment of a statutory National Defence Force Commission, to be appointed by Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, and to advise her on conditions of service. This may be followed by a Constitutional amendment disallowing unions in the military.
While the interim Committee’s report suggests that it may be robust enough to give a true reflection of conditions in the Military, there is no telling if that robustness will last. Certainly, the Minister’s reluctance to release their report points to the dangers of a government appointed body replacing the unions: its voice will be easier to control.
The Ministry has also signalled its intention to sue the SANDU for R22 million for damage incurred during the Union Buildings ‘march’ — a sort of de-unionisation by other means, as the action could bankrupt the union.
The civil liability clause in the RGA, which the Ministry will probably rely on, is probably unconstitutional, as the convening organisation must assume vicarious responsibility for the actions of all protestors, rather than those who caused the violence being held to account. This is, once again, another Constitutional case waiting to happen.
The de-unionisation of the military will be a massive mistake, as an important independent point of access to the decision-making systems in government will be closed down. Unions provide an important safety valve for military personnel to speak in an unmediated voice.
Soldiers received a pay hike after the Union Buildings incident. But if working conditions still remain poor, the denial of civil liberties could create conditions for mutiny.
The growing obsession with national security suggests that the security cluster occupies a central place in the Zuma administration and that its tight control is a priority: hence his appointment of ardent supporters to the cluster, its insulation from the recent Cabinet reshuffle and its gradual de-democratisation.
The Zuma administration has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself. They assumed office in the name of a working class that is becoming increasingly impatient with the pace of delivery. True national security lies in social emancipation and collective organisation, rather than the pursuit of the chimera of individual advancement.
So, it is not insignificant that control of the security cluster is being tightened in a year when there have been more strikes and protests than in any other year in post-apartheid history. A restructured security cluster – where sites of autonomous public power have been replaced by state power – would no doubt help to keep these antagonisms in check.
If this trend intensifies, then the future of the Zuma administration may well come to rest on what Lenin called “special bodies of armed men, having prisons, etc, at their command.” But given his own military experience, Zuma probably knows that.