OPINION: Boots on the ground

Norman McFarlane

The deployment of SANDF troops in the so-called “gang infested” areas on the Cape Flats, marks a low point in our democracy.

The DA, which runs the province, has been agitating for this stupidity for years, going back to the early stages of Helen Zille’s premiership, resurrected with indecent haste, once Alan Winde took over.

That the decision was taken with the best of intentions is axiomatic, but that does not make it right.

Putting boots on the ground, is akin – in that uniquely American aphorism – to putting a Band Aid on it.

Yes, it may well give the gang bangers which plague places like Bonteheuwel pause for thought as they go about their nefarious business, but what it won’t do, is persuade them to fold up their tents and melt into the night.

Rather, it will up the ante, making them more vigilant, and more likely to shoot indiscriminately, if they encounter an SANDF patrol on the streets.

And this is where it could all start to go horribly wrong.

Police training is predicated on the doctrine of use of minimum force. This means that an officer must use the absolute minimum level or force, including armed force, when bringing a situation under control, or defending against a hostile attack. As soon as hostile action ceases, or the target complies with instructions, all police actions must cease.

Police officers are peace officers. Their sworn duty is to protect human life, including the lives of criminals, even those caught in the execution of crimes.

If a police officer must use armed force, the dictum of minimum force still applies: shoot to disable or wound, and only as a last resort, shoot to kill.

Military training on the other hand, has a single objective – elimination of the enemy through the use of lethal force.

Military weapons training teaches that one aims for the largest visible part of the enemy combatant’s anatomy. If that happens to be an arm or a leg, then it is unlikely to be fatal.

If the head or the torso is the largest visible portion of the enemy’s anatomy, then it probably will be fatal.

In accordance with our law, when the SANDF is deployed in what amounts to a public order policing role, the unit will be under the command of the SAPS, which leads to the assumption that the SAPS commander will exercise adequate control.

On August 16 2012, an SAPS public order policing unit opened fire on a group of striking mineworkers, killing 34 and wounding 78, in what became known as the Marikana Massacre. The police were armed with R5s, the standard 5.56mm military issue assault rifle. The striking mineworkers were armed with traditional weapons – machetes, spears, knobkerries. So much for the use of minimum force by the SAPS.

As Operation Prosper unfolds, troops will be deployed in 10 precincts, with specific objectives: cordons and searching, strong points in hot-spots, observation, foot and vehicle patrols, air support for troops and identification of substance manufacturing facilities, and other operations that might be needed.

But what happens when a foot or vehicle patrol encounters a group of armed gang members on the street and a fire fight erupts, as will inevitably happen?

The extent of collateral damage – the euphemism for innocent people killed in the crossfire – that has occurred between warring gangs, is grievous enough, and the gangs do not use traditional weapons. They use guns, just like the military.

Be careful what you wish for.