The decision by Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula to call in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) to help quell gang violence in the Western Cape and Gauteng has been welcomed in some quarters.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille called it a “step in the right direction”, but said it should be regarded as no more than an interim measure.
She suggested the police’s specialised gang units, which were disbanded several years ago, should be revived. We agree that gang violence and criminality has reached such levels in both provinces that a major move is necessary.
However, there is a downside to the latest development. Any country which has to deploy its military to secure internal peace is clearly a country where law and order is disintegrating.
It is also a country where the police have proved inadequate to the task of controlling gangs. The very image of military vehicles in suburbs and patrolling soldiers armed with assault rifles sends a stark message: this is a war zone.
That message will disturb not only South African citizens, but also outsiders, such as tourists and potential investors.
Another major negative to the deployment of troops is that they are trained to respond to threats with maximum force. This is what happens in war. Perhaps this is what Mbalula – a man so beloved of grand gestures – is hoping to use to scare the gangsters into submission.
But having troops in the streets could escalate the violence, especially in the macho culture of gangs, where engaging in real firefights with real soldiers could become a badge of honour.
We need to see a return to normal policing as soon as possible, with tough, but not military tough, actions being taken.
The SANDF is, after all, meant to protect us against external threats, and not make a minister look better.