In May 1975, just before 4 Field Regiment deployed to 2 Sub Area in Eastern Caprivi, all four batteries – the equivalent of an infantry company in an artillery regiment – underwent D-formation training.
At the time, we had no idea that the country would burst into flames just over a year later on June 16, when angry school children took their battle to the streets of Soweto to protest the imminent imposition of Afrikaans – the language of the oppressor – as the medium of instruction in all black schools.
D-formation training encompasses riot and civil disturbance control, including the use of tear gas as a deterrent, and ominously, the use of live ammunition.
Our training spanned almost a month, during which we had to unlearn the instinctive inclination to kill the enemy without hesitation, something which had been drummed into us throughout our National Service up to that point.
Two years later, military vehicles were patrolling the townships, in an attempt to quell the brooding anger of struggle forces determined to throw off the yoke of oppression that had crushed the life out of the majority of our citizens for over 300 hundred years.
The tide was inexorably turning against the apartheid state, and President PW Botha had adopted the measure of desperation that signals the end game, by declaring a state of emergency and authorising the deployment of military assets in an internal peacekeeping role. The police were incapable of controlling the situation, so hawk that he was, he perceived he had little choice.
The mayhem that ensued is a matter of record, and that dark stain on our national psyche will forever be a reminder that no matter how carefully they are managed, military personnel are ill-equipped for the role for which police officers are trained from the outset – keeping the peace.
Whereas police officers are instilled with the dictum of minimum force, and must account for every round they discharge in controlling a situation, military personnel are trained to kill.
But even the police can, and do make catastrophic mistakes, witnessed by the Marikana Massacre on Thursday August 16 2012, in which 34 striking miners lost their lives on a dusty koppie in the North West Province, when a massive contingent of riot police opened fire with automatic weapons.
And now Premier Helen Zille wants to persuade President Jacob Zuma to authorise the deployment of military assets in the gang-infested Cape Flats in an attempt to contain the mayhem that has raged there for years.
While this is not the first time she has made this request, the circumstances that have motivated it this time are truly dreadful: an ambulance transporting an injured eight year-old child to hospital was hi-jacked and because the ambulance personnel could not tend to the child, he died.
The plea is that ambulance and other emergency service resources often require protection to go into certain areas, protection that cannot be rendered by the thinly stretched South African Police Service (SAPS).
Military assets deployed in this capacity, will operate under the command structure of the SAPS we are told, which means that their reactions to any given situation would subscribe to the dictum of minimum force.
If the SAPS is as thinly stretched as it purports to be, how much oversight will be exercised over military assets that are deployed as planned?
If trained SAPS members can react in the manner that they did at Marikana, how on earth can we expect our poorly trained South African National Defence Force personnel to react in any other manner in a civilian deployment?
Despite the intractable problems that are posed by gang violence on the Cape Flats, deploying military assets will open a Pandora’s Box that will inevitably result in a rising body-count, the very thing that such deployment is intended to reduce.
Find another way, Premier Helen, find another way.