Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
19 January 2012

Why a ten year old agreement cannot authorise deployment of soldiers in our cities

The South African National Defence Force, the Presidency and the DA Provincial government in the Western Cape do not seem to be bothered by the increased militarisation of South Africa, nor by the dangers posed by unleashing heavily armed soldiers not trained for that purpose on ordinary citizens. They apparently see nothing wrong with undermining the oversight and accountability functions of Parliament either — as long as they can project an image to voters that they are tough on criminals. Neither do they apparently see anything wrong with the routine deployment of soldiers, armed with semi-automatic guns, in residential areas.

What will happen when those soldiers open fire on citizens and ultimately kill scores of citizens (much like soldiers used to kill scores of citizens in the last ten years of apartheid in townships across South Africa)? Who will be blamed for such a massacre? Will soldiers be charged with murder and sentenced to jail for killing innocent civilians? Because mark my words, if the routine deployment of heavily armed soldiers to combat crime and intimidate protestors or ordinary citizens going about their business is not stopped, a massacre will occur at some point. It always does in a state where the government of the day conflates the role of the police with that of the military and routinely uses the military to assist the police with ordinary safety and security work inside the country.

In terms of section 205(3) of the Constitution the police service (NOT the military) is tasked with preventing, combating and investigating crime, to maintain public order, to protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic and their property, and to uphold and enforce the law. Because we are a constitutional democracy and not a military dictatorship, the military should only assist the police service in exceptional circumstances and, as I pointed out earlier this week, only in accordance with strict procedures.

Last week soldiers were involved in a law enforcement exercise in Johannesburg and reportedly assaulted a businessman by slapping him and throwing him to the ground. With a boot on his chest the soldier then allegedly questioned his nationality. (See picture below, taken by  Ihsaan Haffejee.) As a South African of Indian descent, they probably assumed he was an immigrant from Asia. Luckily they did not shoot or kill anyone with their heavy weapons while they were out there supposedly searching for counterfeit goods.

Curious onlookers to this operation in the bustling CBD of Johannesburg reportedly had stun grenades thrown at them when they gathered to see what was happening. Other onlookers got their faces full of pepper-spray. The Star newspaper reported that one man had his camera confiscated by soldiers after he took pictures of one of them beating a man with the butt of his assault rifle. Do we really want to live in a state where heavily armed soldiers get involved in the assault and intimidation of fellow citizens?

Responding to queries about the legality of the involvement of heavily armed soldiers (allegedly aimed at searching for counterfeit goods, but in reality aimed at intimidating ordinary citizens to prevent them from engaging in political protests), General Ndivhuwo Mabaya stated that the police and the SANDF have a cooperation agreement which covers all their joint operations, that this was approved in 2001 “or so”, and that this blanket agreement allows the deployment of soldiers to assist the Police whenever and wherever.

“The President is not a person,” he said, but “an office”, (albeit an office with several wives, a blue light brigade and a mean singing and dancing routine) “so the agreement and authorisation of cooperation of the two institution signed in 2001 or 2002 is still valid”. He conceded that the President needed to sign an order to deploy soldiers, but argued that the 2001 agreement covers all eventualities. Helen Zille must agree with this argument because her government has requested the deployment of soldiers in several hotspots around Cape Town (in places where poor black people live or which they frequent, of course — I have never seen heavily armed soldiers in Bishopscourt or Bantry Bay).

This is dead wrong — and dangerous to boot. Here is why.

It is a well-established principle of South African constitutional interpretation, that the provisions of the Constitution have to be read together, as the various provisions may relate to one another and often “talk” to each other and has meaning only in relation to other provisions in the Constitution. One cannot determine the purpose of a sub-clause of the Constitution if one does not read that sub-clause in conjunction with surrounding sub-clauses and other related clauses. And as any constitutional lawyer will tell you, constitutional interpretation relies heavily on a “purposive” interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution: one must ask what the purpose of a relevant provision of the Constitution is and then interpret it accordingly to give effect to this purpose.

That is why we must ask what the purpose of section 201 of the Constitution is. That is also why sub-sections 2 and 3 of section 201 of the Constitution must be read together. The purpose is clear: the drafters of the Constitution wanted to avoid a situation in which an unaccountable President (the person, not the office) sent soldiers to fight in foreign wars (without having to declare war on that country). Furthermore they wanted to Prevent an unaccountable President from sending soldiers into the suburbs of South Africa to intimidate protestors and to instil fear in the hearts of citizens in a desperate attempt to cling to power.

The apartheid government did both of these things and no one was ever held accountable for it. The drafters of our Constitution knew better and included section 201 to ensure Presidential accountability for the deployment of troops inside and outside South Africa. Thus, section 102 of the Constitution states:

2. Only the President, as head of the national executive, may authorise the employment of the defence force (a) in co-operation with the police service; (b)in defence of the Republic; or (c) in fulfilment of an international obligation.

3. When the defence force is employed for any purpose mentioned in subsection (2), the President must inform Parliament, promptly and in appropriate detail, of (a) the reasons for the employment of the defence force; (b) any place where the force is being employed; (c) the number of people involved; and (d) the period for which the force is expected to be employed.

4. If Parliament does not sit during the first seven days after the defence force is employed as envisaged in subsection (2), the President must provide the information required in subsection (3) to the appropriate oversight committee.

The President has a duty to authorise deployment of soldiers and when he does authorise such a grave step, to inform Parliament in detail about any deployment of the soldiers, the reasons for the deployment and how many soldiers are deployed in this manner. Reading these sub-sections in isolation, as if the President can provide a blanket authorisation for the deployment of South African soldiers which would cover every possible eventuality, on the condition that he or she provided details of each deployment to Parliament, would completely negate the purpose, meaning and effect of section 201.

Instead of ensuring that the President is accountable to Parliament for what may be life and death decisions, such a reading would require a President (either as a person or as an office) never to have to take responsibility for such a decision and never having to defend it to the democratically elected members of Parliament.

Why this reading is absurd and wrong can easily be illustrated with an example. Recall that section 201 covers situations like the deployment of soldiers as part of an international peace keeping effort or as part of a military campaign that does not involve a declaration of war by South Africa. In the reading of General Mabaya, the President (who, is not a person after all), may in general terms, authorise the deployment of South African troops abroad to fight in wars in which they might well be killed.

When, several years or even decades after such general authorisation, the USA then wishes to invade Iran and asks South Africa to contribute troops to a coalition of the willing or Uganda wishes to invade the DRC and asks South Africa to contribute troops to a coalition of the righteous, this prior “authorisation” (even if given in general terms ten years ago by another administration) would comply with the requirements of section 201(2).

This would render section 201(2) utterly meaningless and would negate its purpose and effect. Section 102(2) requires authorisation by the President because this will hold the President and his or her administration accountable for what would often be highly charged and politically contentious decisions, decisions that might lead to the loss of life of large numbers of South African soldiers. Because a decision of this kind may be politically highly contentious, a President will have to consider all relevant factors — including the possible opposition of voters to sending South African soldiers to die on foreign soil for a cause they do not believe in — before authorising such a drastic step.

Sending troops to Iran, for example, to assist the United States of America (who might be invading a foreign country in order to placate the far-right wing government of Israel or to secure oil supplies for the USA) would probably be opposed by the vast majority of South Africans and by a majority of ANC voters. But if General Mabaya is to be believed, in a case like this our Constitution would only require that a previous President had agreed (in general terms and more than 10 years ago)  that South African troops could be deployed abroad, for section 201(2) to be complied with.

Moreover, this absurd interpretation would also negate the purpose and effect of section 201(3). Why would a President be required to answer to Parliament for a specific deployment after the deployment had already taken place, if that President was never required actually to authorise the specific deployment at all? And would this mean that a junior Defence Official would be able to decide to send troops to Iran because a President had authorised — in general terms — the deployment of South African troops abroad 10 years previously? This would clearly be absurd, yet General Mabaya wants to convince us dat perdedrolle eintlike vye is (that horse manure droppings are really figs).

Read holistically, section 201 requires the President to take political responsibility for each decision to deploy soldiers inside and outside South Africa and then to account to Parliament for this decision by reporting to it on the reasons for the decision as well as on the number of troops to be deployed. Parliament has (at least on paper) the power to stop such a decision as it can threaten to fire the President if he or she authorises the sending of troops to Iran or the sending of troops into townships where citizens have taken to the streets to protest against corruption and service delivery failures. If Section 102 allowed for a blanket authorisation for this kind of thing into the future, Parliament would have no such power and no role to play in holding the President to account, and the reporting obligations would become utterly meaningless.

Generals or military bureaucrats may then make individual decisions about the deployment of soldiers inside and outside South Africa and this will undermine the principle that soldiers are subject to civilian control and that the President, as Commander in Chief , is accountable to the only truly democratically elected national body, namely the National Assembly, for his or her actions.

No, General Mabaya, you are dead wrong. You are also exposing our soldiers to criminal sanction.

Every time heavily armed soldiers appear on our streets and assault and intimidate ordinary citizens, they are doing so unlawfully. Ordering a soldier to take part in such an operation against fellow citizens is thus, arguably, manifestly unlawful. This means that soldiers may well have a legal duty to disobey orders to take part in policing operations inside South Africa, as section 199(6) of the Constitution states that no member of any security service may obey a manifestly illegal order.

If they do not and they are involved in the killing of a civilian during such an unlawful operation which they had agreed to be part of, an individual soldier might well expose him or herself to prosecution for murder. If I was a member of one of the Defence Force Unions, I would be very worried about such a possibility indeed and I would seek clarity on it. Surely Defence Force Unions have a duty to protect their members from possible criminal prosecution? Why are they not taking this up with the leadership of the Defence Force and, if she would deem to talk to them, with the Minister of Defence?

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