Let's Think

Could the Defence Force play a role in local elections?

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On the field of the fast-moving media the recent xenophobic violence and the resultant Operation Fiela have been kicked off the pitch by the Fifa scandal – probably dangerously prematurely.

One of the main features of the ongoing Operation Fiela is that personnel of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was deployed to assist the South African Police Service (SAPS) “to maintain law and order” as per President Jacob Zuma’s letter of 23 April to parliament.

This letter, required by the constitution in events like these, only specifically mentioned KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Despite the constitution’s prescription that such a letter should contain “appropriate detail” regarding, among other things, “any place where the force is being deployed”, the Zuma letter contains the following open-ended statement: “... and any other area in the Republic of South Africa as the need arises ...”

Not even the issue of xenophobic violence is mentioned in the letter, and was only later mentioned by Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in a statement making public the deployment of military personnel.

This fact is highlighted in an article on the website Groundup, strongly calling into question the legality of the way SANDF members were deployed in Operation Fiela.

As it turned out, two weeks after the launch of the operation, which focused on immigrants from Africa, SANDF members were also used in support of the SAPS in a totally unrelated situation in another part of the country: gang-related crime hotspots in the Cape Town Metro.

Against this background, the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) in a statement came out against the use of SANDF members in search and arrest operations in the metro. They claimed that it was not legal since it was not in line with the stated purpose in the president’s letter.

To what extent Operation Fiela has been stretching the law and even seen the flagrant ignoring of court orders in its execution, is highlighted in turn by the ongoing battle of Lawyers for Human Rights to protect the rights of immigrants caught in the seemingly indiscriminate dragnet deployed in Gauteng.

In its article on the matter, Groundup states: “To deploy the army is an exceptional measure. It implies that the police force is unable to control a situation that threatens a country’s security and well-being.”

Calling into question the legality and constitutionality of the deployment of SANDF personnel in the case of Operation Fiela, the article warns: “The initial deployment of troops to areas not known as crime hotspots shows how dangerous it is to allow the military to be deployed under such a broad mandate. This sets a dangerous precedent.” (Our emphasis.)

Future scenario

Against this background, it is prudent to consider the warnings contained in a research report released a year ago by the Institute of Security Studies regarding that year’s general election.

Referring to the election and increased incidents of violent protests, the ISS’s Lizette Lancaster noted that during the course of the 2014 campaign “... local grievances escalated into national political issues and the government was expected to face considerable pre-election violence ahead of the 2016 municipal elections as new contenders tried to unseat councillors”.

With this in mind, it is not too difficult to foresee scenarios developing during next year’s municipal elections, which could present the president again with a pretext to deploy the SANDF “to maintain law and order”.

Opposition parties would be failing the country dangerously if they, by concentrating too much on nothing but the here and now, allow government to place – almost unnoticed – too much discretion at the disposal of the president to call on the assistance of the SANDF.

by Piet Coetzer

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