[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.
Are we at war with our own citizens? Why else are soldiers patrolling the streets of Cape Town? I was rather startled when I opened my newspaper this morning and spotted a picture of soldiers with automatic weapons and wearing what looked like full combat gear, parading outside the Khayelitsha District Hospital. For a moment I thought I was back in 1988 and “Boetie” had gone back into the township. The newspaper informs me that soldiers were called in to help control a crowd of protestors outside the hospital. The contingent of soldiers told the Cape Times that they had been diverted to the hospital after being on a routine patrol in the area with the SA Police Services.
But why were soldiers patrolling the streets of Cape Town with members of the Police Service (remember, the Constitution talks about a Police Service, not a Police Force)? Can this be legal? And why were they then diverted from their patrol to get involved in a protest by ordinary citizens? Surely we should be very careful before we use heavily armed soldiers to intervene in political and economic protests by citizens? We do not, as far as I can recall, live in a military dictatorship.
And that is why our Constitution is rather clear on this issue and why it contains provisions that safeguard ordinary citizens from the use of the military against protestors. To avoid the militarisation of our society and to prevent a recurrence of the situation which prevailed in South Africa in the last 15 years of apartheid, when the military played an ever increasing role in suppressing political dissent against the apartheid government, the Constitution sets out strict requirements for the employment of the Defence Force – inside and outside South Africa.
Section 200(2) of the Constitution confirms that the Defence Force should not normally be employed inside South Africa, stating that:
The primary object of the defence force is to defend and protect the Republic, its territorial integrity and its people in accordance with the Constitution and the principles of international law regulating the use of force.
Section 201(2) of the Constitution provides for an exception to this rule, stating that the President, as head of the national executive, may authorise the employment of the defence force in co-operation with the Police Service or in defence of the Republic.
Section 201(3) then states that when the defence force is employed with the Police Service, the President must inform Parliament, promptly and in appropriate detail, of the reasons for the employment of the defence force; any place where the force is being employed; the number of people involved; and the period for which the force is expected to be employed. If Parliament does not sit during the first seven days after the defence force is employed as envisaged, the President must provide the information to the appropriate oversight committee.
In the context of section 200 and 201 it is clear that the Constitution does not allow the employment of the Defence Force inside South Africa in circumstances other than in co-operation with the Police Service. There are good reasons for this.
In a constitutional democracy it is of utmost importance that the role of the Police Service and the role of the Defence Force be kept separate. The Defence Force should normally not be employed inside the country – especially not to control crowds protesting against a lack of employment opportunities or against service delivery failures. It is normally the role of the Police Service to deal with crime and other internal challenges to law and order. A failure to uphold this distinction between the Police and the Military is dangerous as it will run the risk of further politicising the Defence Force and will create an incentive for politicians to deploy the Defence Force, with its arsenal of dangerous weapons, against ordinary citizens.
Did the President inform Parliament that he was employing the Defence Force to patrol townships in Cape Town? If he did, what reasons were given? If not, why is he in breach of the Constitution?
Strangely section 18 of the Defence Act, which I only read for the first time this morning, states, states that “in addition” to the employment of the Defence Force by the President as authorised by section 201(2), the President or the Minister may authorise the employment of the Defence Force for service inside the Republic or in international waters, in order to: (a) preserve life, health or property in emergency or humanitarian relief operations; (b) ensure the provision of essential services; (c) support any department of state, including support for purposes of socio-economic upliftment; and (d) effect national border control.
As I read section 200 and 201 of the Constitution, it does not allow the President to deploy the Defence Force inside South Africa against citizens unless it is done in co-operation with the Police Service. Section 18 of the Defence Act is therefore most probably unconstitutional in as much as it purports to give the President wider powers to employ the Defence Force in South Africa than those provided for in section 201(2) of the Constitution.
As I read it, the Constitution only empowers the President to employ the Defence Force “in co-operation” with the Police Service – never on its own. In as much as the Defence Act states otherwise and allows the employment of the Defence Force on its own, the provisions in section 18 are surely unconstitutional. As section 19 of the Defence Act deals with the employment of the Defence Force in co-operation with the Police Service (as authorised by the Constitution), it seems to me the whole of section 18 of that Act must be unconstitutional as it bestows powers on the President and the Minister of Defence not not bestowed on them by the Constitution.
Section 19(1) of the Defence Act, quite correctly, states that the Defence Force may be employed in co-operation with the South African Police Service in terms of section 201(2)(a) of the Constitution in the prevention and combating of crime and maintenance and preservation of law and order within the Republic.
Section 19(2) requires the Minister of Defence to give notice of such employment by notice in the Government Gazette within 24 hours of the commencement of such employment and, upon such employment being discontinued, within 24 hours of such discontinuation give notice of the discontinuation by notice in the Gazette. This provision also contravenes section 201(3) of the Constitution, which requires the President (not the Minister) to inform Parliament of the employment as well as the reasons for and details about the employment.
Section 19(3) then sets out strict procedures and criteria that must be met for such a deployment.
Service in co-operation with the South African Police Service: (a) may only be performed in such area or at such place as the President may order at the request of the Minister and the Minister of Safety and Security; (b) must be discontinued in such area or at such place as the President may order at the request of the Minister and the Minister of Safety and Security or when the President deems it expedient for any other reason; and (c) must be performed in accordance with:
(i) a code of conduct and operational procedures approved by the Minister;
(ii) such guidelines regarding:
(aa) co-operation between the Defence Force and the South African Police Service; and
(bb) co-ordination of command over and control of members of the Defence Force and the South African Police Service, as the Chief of the Defence Force and the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service may determine.
When soldiers were diverted to the Kayelitsha District Hospital, it could only have been done if ordered by the President – as head of the executive. If the President had not ordered such an employment of soldiers, the employment would be unlawful. Moreover, in terms of section 19, such an employment would require the Minister of Defence to give notice of this employment in the Government Gazette within 24 hours. Section 201 also requires the President to inform Parliament of such an employment immediately. If the Minister of Defence had failed to give notice of this employment and if the President ahd not informed Parliament, they would be in breach of the Constitution and the Defence Act.
These possible breaches of the Constitution and the Defence Act might appear trivial, but flouting the Constitution and the law in this way is deeply damaging to our democracy and to the credibility of the government of the day. First, a government can only command respect from ordinary citizens if its members is generally seen to respect the Constitution and the law and if they do not flout respect for the Rule of Law. Second, a democratic government should not use the Defence Force (with its frightening ability to maim and kill unarmed citizens) against its own people except in the most extreme cases – to assist the Police in the aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster or in the face of an armed insurrection that threatens the democratic order itself.
It might be that the President and the Minister of Defence have both acted properly and in accordance with the Constitution and the law. An insurrection threatening the constitutional democracy might be underway in Cape Town townships and we might be blissfully unaware of this. What we do not know is whether the President and the Minister have complied with the Constitution and the Defence Act (parts of which are clearly unconstitutional), because we have not heard anything about what steps they had taken to provide legal cover for this employment of the Defence Force and why this employment was needed at all. In the absence of reassurances, all right minded citizens would be excused for becoming anxious about our government’s commitment to the Rule of Law and about its commitment to a democratic state free from interference by a politicised military.
A failure to explain and justify this draconian and scary move to employ heavily armed soldiers against ordinary citizens, must alarm any citizen who loves his or her freedom.BACK TO TOP