I had not yet turned 19 when I discovered there was actually such a thing as “reading the Riot Act”.
I thought it was just an English expression meaning, roughly, now you’re in trouble – as in “your father’s going to read you the Riot Act…”
The Riot Act was a piece of legislation that originated in England and was enforced in its colonial possessions as a way of keeping the natives subjugated. “Reading the Riot Act” was a formal procedure embarked upon by an army officer confronting a “riotous assembly”.
With his armed troops drawn up behind him, he would address the crowd, holding up a copy of the Riot Act, ordering them to disperse in terms of the law. Failing that, he would warn them, his soldiers would open fire using “hard ammunition”.
In case there was any doubt, he would haul out a bullet, hold it between thumb and forefinger and show it to the crowd, giving them five minutes to leave or meet their maker.
This highly ritualistic process was intended to put the fear of God into any protesters, as was the military precision of the deployment of the soldiers … all intended to convey the message: we are the army and we are serious. Deadly serious.
We 18-year-old national service trainee soldiers practiced that drill, in the event we were called out to a township to restore “law and order”. As one of those in our platoon who had qualified for a “marksman” badge, I would have been in the front rank and would have had to shoot. And it would not have been random.
The officers would have identified the leaders or rabble rousers in the crowd and we would have been given a “target indication” and ordered to shoot to kill. The theory was to kill a few rather than many because, without leadership, a crowd quickly disintegrates.
Fortunately, I was never called upon to shoot in such circumstances.
Deploying the army to deal with civil strife – as was announced a few days ago in the Western Cape – is always a last resort. It says the police cannot handle a particular situation and that deadly force is now coming.
Regardless of how the SA Army will be used on the Cape Flats to deal with the out-of-control gang wars, this is the message which has gone out. And that worries me. Because people are going to die. And, contrary to what many people believe – because the military are supposedly well-equipped and trained – the death toll will include soldiers.
Firstly, even if the troops sent to the troubled area have been trained in urban warfare, nothing will have prepared them sufficiently for what they will encounter.
They won’t be moving through multi-storey buildings on laid-out streets. They will be operating in shack land. Good cover will be hard to find – bullets go straight through corrugated iron.
People will disappear into the maze like water in a parched desert. Weapons will be ditched instantly by those running … running to fight another day.
Make no mistake, too – those gangsters might not have had formal military training, and some of them may be doped up, but they have had plenty of experience using guns. And now the soldiers will be on their turf … and they will be eager to have a life-and-death pissing contest.