South Africa: Militarised lockdown against the working class and poor

South African Police Service personnel (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There is growing concern over police and military brutality in the enforcement of South Africa’s twenty-one-day lockdown regulations. Videos have circulated on social media of soldiers beating up and kicking residents in informal settlements, forcing them to do frog jumps and roll in the mud, as the police arrogate to themselves the right to meet out justice on the spot.

The shack-dwellers organisation, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), reports that for three successive days, starting on ‘Day 1’ of the lockdown, eThekwini municipal officials oversaw evictions and the demolition of shacks by private security companies. The eThekwini Municipality responded to AbM’s protests by returning the following day, this time backed by army – the SA National Defence Force.

The Defence Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was obliged to issue a statement condemning the brutality. But it was clear no action would be taken. The real attitude of the state is shown both by the inaction of Housing Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, over the AbM’s complaints. Police Minister, Bheki Cele, has clearly taken to his increased role with relish, declaring at a press conference that “we have no issues arresting people if we need to, so don’t give us a reason to.” He lightmindedly dismissed complaints, describing the police’s behaviour as “kind” and warned that people have not yet seen “brutality”.

Journalists in Johannesburg gave a good indication of how some SAPS (South African Police Service) personnel interpreted the cue of the Police Minister on the enforcement of the lockdown regulations. On Day 4 they observed the following:

“At midday on Monday, a white Toyota hatchback … was cruising through the quieter than usual streets of Hillbrow, a densely-populated suburb near Johannesburg’s city centre.

“Inside was a plainclothes policeman wearing jeans, a red jacket and surgical gloves, and three colleagues’ SAPS uniforms.

“The vehicle would drive a few blocks and come to a halt, and the plainclothes cop with a sjambok [whip] would leap out and chase civilians apparently breaking strict lock-down rules. If he caught them, he would beat them with the whip – sometimes administering up to eight blows.

“We are sjambokking people… People cannot be disciplined without it,” said the uniformed driver of the vehicle. “We don’t want to see three people together without carrying anything. What are they doing? Then you ask, ‘Where are you going?’ they don’t answer.”

He claimed that this kind of force was permitted during the national lockdown, and that they were following orders from “the top”.[1]

In the neighbouring suburb of Yeoville, a video showed police firing rubber bullets at residents. This footage was captured before the police realised journalists were on the scene.

In parts of Durban, policing has been business as usual. The xenophobic harassment of foreign-born spaza shop owners has continued with police demanding bribes and confiscating goods. Again, the lead on this was set from “the top”. The Minister of Small Business Development, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, announced that only spaza shops run by South African citizens would be allowed to operate during the lockdown.[2] Although this was later withdrawn, alongside comments by President Ramaphosa, and from Cele, it nevertheless helped set the tone for the lockdown.

At the time of writing, eight people have died as a result of police action. When reported, this exceeded the number of deaths caused by the virus! (News24’s online article has since amended this figure to three without an explanation. Other news outlets continue to use eight.) One of the dead was a man in the Western Cape who was tasered while trying to buy beer (prohibited as part of the lockdown). Six cases of police assault have been handed to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. This likely only scratches the surface of abuses that are taking place given the scale of repression.

At the end of the first week of the lockdown, SAPS confirmed 17,209 arrests had been made. This will include some who have taken advantage of the lockdown, for example, to rob closed schools and business premises. The better indication of the impact of the lockdown on normally law-abiding people is the 7,450 fines which have been handed out for breaking lockdown rules.[3] News reports give another flavour of the impact. On 4 April, fifty-five construction workers were arrested for continuing with their work. Their employer was nowhere to be found however![4] Fifty were arrested while attending a wedding in KZN. Police moved in during the exchange of vows, arresting the bride, the groom and the pastor!

ANC authoritarianism

But all of the African National Congress (ANC) ministers are only following the lead of their Commander-in-Chief, President Cyril Ramaphosa. Ahead of the lockdown, Ramaphosa addressed a televised rally of police officers. He was careful to pepper his speech with assurances that the role of the police would be to “help, assist and guide” the people of South Africa. But the real heart of his message was the following threat:

“But of course there will be those who want to take chances. There will be those who will want to cut corners. There will be those whose intent will be wilful, where they will deliberately want to challenge the state. And for those I have a clear message: this is not the time to play with fire. This is not the time to play with the people of South Africa. We are deadly serious about saving lives. And those who want to take chances, those who want to do wrong things, must of course meet the wrath of the South African state.”[5]

Ramaphosa is re-treading familiar ground. In 2012, when he was deputy president, infamous emails revealed the tone of his telephone discussions with the then Minister of Police. He characterised a mineworkers’ strike as “a criminal act” requiring “concomitant action”. The next day, thirty-four mineworkers were shot dead in the Marikana Massacre. In the context of growing police militarisation, and encouragements by ANC ministers to use deadly force against criminals while signalling that such ‘excesses’ would be over-looked, Ramaphosa’s pressure easily translated into the use of deadly force. He has the blood of workers on his hands.

The choice of the ANC government to rely overwhelmingly on force and not persuasion in a militarised lockdown reflects the sharp class polarisation in society. Years of anti-working class policies and neglect by ANC politicians, who treat the working class and poor as voting-fodder, has produced a social crisis and deep alienation from governmental authority. The plummeting turnout in elections is one indication; the popularity of conspiracy theories to explain the Covid-19 crisis another.

The government calculated that it would be possible to persuade the middle class in the suburbs, and higher-paid workers in wealthier township extensions, to co-operate with the necessary measures of social distancing. This is what press conferences by government ministers, initially conducted exclusively in English, have attempted to do. But social distancing is virtually impossible to implement in the overcrowded townships and slum-conditions of the informal settlements. The government decided that the working class and the poor would need to be forced to ‘co-operate’ by the police and army.

Trade unions

The speed with which the lockdown was implemented caught trade unions, and other working class and community organisations, by surprise. There was no time to organise an effective and democratic alternative to the forcible imposition of a lockdown. For now, the working class sees little other choice than to put-up with it as a lesser-evil to the unchecked spread of covid-19.

However, the lack of organisational preparation is rooted in the political and ideological outlook of the entire leadership of the trade unions movement across the board – from Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) on the right, to Saftu (South African Federation of Trade Unions ), on the left. Little could have been expected from the Cosatu leadership, who have remained voluntary inmates of the Tripartite Alliance political prison, despite Marikana and the attacks on the right to strike.

But the Saftu leadership is itself, generally, singing from the same hymn sheet as Cosatu on the economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic. That both federations offered to assist the government to help to save capitalism confirms the extent to which both have surrendered their class independence.

Trade unions and community organisations, should have, and still can, approach the pandemic independently. They could organise democratically elected anti-corona brigades to provide education, provide supplies, and train communities to take charge of the implementation of the lockdown guidelines themselves, with resources supplied by the state. On its own, this was never going to be enough. The workers’ movement should have demanded a mass housing programme to accommodate, particularly informal settlement residents, as a step toward their complete eradication.

In the absence of the counter-pressure of the organised working class, the state has been allowed unchecked to take charge of overcoming a problem of its own making – a massive housing backlog and sprawling squatter camps, politely referred to as ‘informal’ settlements, that lack water, sanitation and basic amenities.

Even in ‘the best of times’ policing in South Africa looks little different to a war against the poor – with widespread corruption, harassment, violence, torture, rape, murder, extortion and bribery. The increased scope of operations and fresh abuses can only add to the crisis of legitimacy that the police already face in many communities.

The township’s new ‘occupying forces’ can act like a petrol hose, pumping fuel on the social explosion that is being prepared in South Africa by the economic consequences of the lockdown. These are having a devastating impact on the millions of people who live hand-to-mouth and day-to-day. Especially if the lockdown is extended, this virtually guarantees widespread confrontations between communities that need to eat and the police officers and soldiers ordered to keep them at home.

Dimly recognising the dangers, the ANC government has eased some restrictions – allowing spaza shops to re-open and informal traders to resume business. But the highly secretive plans to relocate tens-of-thousands of inhabitants from twenty-nine informal settlements around the country to ‘de-densify’ communities could provoke serious confrontations.

Workers’ movement

One of the legacies of the struggle against apartheid is that police officers have the right to join an independent trade union. Soldiers do too, though with greater restrictions – the South African National Defence Union is prohibited from affiliating to a federation. Around the world, this is the exception rather than the norm.

Under capitalism, the bosses require tight-control of the police force to use it against workers’ struggles – especially strikes – that threaten their control of the workplace and their profits. It is very risky for the capitalist class to allow police officers to be a full part of the workers’ movement. It makes them unreliable for the defence of capitalism. But it can also be difficult for the bosses to resist this. The rank-and-file are recruited from the working class and live in working class communities. They face challenges over pay and working conditions. So, at this stage, the balance the ANC government has struck is to allow independent police unions but it denies them the right to strike.

The Saftu-affiliated police officers union, Sapu, issued a statement condemning police brutality during the lockdown saying that they refuse to close ranks “with rogue elements like these.” Sapu went on to say that “accountability is the cornerstone of our existence; therefore we have to be accountable for every action one takes… We have to perform our duty within the spirit of human and democratic rights.”

Encouragingly, this pulls in the opposite direction to the messages given to the police by Ramaphosa and Cele, or the deafening silence of the leadership of the Cosatu-affiliated and ANC-aligned police union Popcru. Sapu’s position needs to be fleshed-out and entrenched in the workers’ movement through a clear programme that clarifies that it is to the working class majority and their communities that the police must be accountable – during the lockdown, but also after it. This will not be easy to achieve because of the contradictory position of rank-and-file police officers under capitalism, and, as long as capitalism exists, it can never be fully accomplished. Therefore, alongside a strategy of drawing the ranks of the police and army towards the organised working class, working class communities must be organised to ensure compliance with social distancing measures and to defend communities against criminals, but also against any police and army harassment or violence.

[1]Police Use Sjamboks and Rubber Bullets to Enforce Hillbrow Lockdown, Micah Reddy and Simon Allison, amaBhungane (31 March 2020)

[2]Rogue Cops in Durban Demand ‘Protection Fee’ from Spazas, Sandile Motha, Daily Maverick(5 April 2020)

[3]Over 17,000 People Arrested Since Lockdown Kicked-Off, News24 (3 April 2020)

[4]Workers at a Johannesburg construction site have been arrested after they were found at work despite the national lockdown, News24 (4 April 2020)

[5] Video of speech: Ramaphosa Wishes SAPS, SANDF Members Well Before Lockdown, eNCA (26 March 2020)

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April 2020