Let's Think

Is government preparing for civil war?

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Has South Africa already entered the early stages of a civil war or is it in a de facto state of emergency?

This is a legitimate question to pose in the light of a recent statement by the department of defence’s head of communication, Siphiwe Dlamini. Explaining the reasons for the extension of the domestic deployment of the South African Defence Force (SANDF) under Operation Fiela-Reclaim until March next year, he compared it to the armed forces operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The DRC, where the SANDF is involved in an international peace-keeping capacity, has been subjected to a civil war for more than five years.

It is well documented that government has been using, and expanding, the deployment of SANDF troops far beyond the original purpose of getting to grips with the xenophobic violence of earlier this year.

Statistics, released by the Minister of Police, Nathi Nhleko, in parliament in response to a question by the Democratic Alliance (DA), confirm that the main aim was rather the typical police function of crime fighting. Of the 343 operations launched under Fiela at the time of the reply, the vast majority took place outside Gauteng and KwaZulu/Natal where the xenophobic violence was experienced. Only Gauteng and KwaZulu/Natal were mentioned in President Jacob Zuma’s original letter to parliament informing it of his intention to deploy SANDF units inside South Africa.

Stretching the reach of Fiela

Within two weeks of the start of Operation Fiela SANDF personnel were deployed in crime fighting operations in the Western Cape where the DA is in government.

To what extent government has become comfortable to stretch the interpretation of President Zuma’s use of the words “… any other area in the Republic of South Africa as the need arises ...” was illustrated by a threat less than two weeks ago by Gauteng premier, David Makhura.

He told a gathering in Mamelodi, Tshwane at the time of taxi-related protests: “We will even bring the army if need be.”

Wider implications

This attitude read together with a tirade against nongovernmental organisations by a senior cabinet minister, Blade Nzimande, during the congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which forms part of the governing alliance, has ominous implications.

While Nzimande said “South Africa has a disease called civil society, which was inherently suspicious of the state and political parties”, at least 29 civil organisations and eight trade unions are planning a mass protest march of thousands of people to the Union Buildings against corruption in a month’s time.

It is becoming a real possibility that members of the SANDF could be deployed with the police at the time if under the very broadly formulated intention of President Zuma’s letter: “… to assist the South African Police Service (SAPS) to maintain law and order in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and any other area in the Republic of South Africa as the need arises.” (Our emphasis.)

The extension of Operation Fiela and its accompanying deployment of SANDF troops on the streets of South Africa to the end of March keeps it in place until eight weeks before the term of office of the present local governments ends.

The first of June is the latest date at which the final countdown to next year’s municipal elections can start. Electioneering should be well under way by that stage.

In this column of 7th June of this year we referred to the findings of a report by the Institute of Security Studies about the increase in violent protests during the general election of 2014 and how “…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”.

At the time we wrote: “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’”.

Taking shortcuts

To what extent government does not want to be bothered by the niceties of “due process and procedures”, also becomes clear from Dlamini’s reasons for extending the time frame of Operation Fiela.

He said, among other things: “… the extension allows the army to assist the police in the coming months without the administrative hassle of going through the process for another deployment.”

He claimed that having to go through the paperwork every two or three months would “become a bit of an administrative nightmare”.

Despite claims from governing alliance leaders that the judiciary tends to rule against them, in May of this year Lawyers for Human Rights failed to secure an urgent interdict against raids in terms of Operation Fiela, claiming it was unlawful and unconstitutional. The court found the lawyers failed to prove the operation was an ongoing trend and therefore was not an urgent matter.

We believe this situation has now dramatically changed with the extension of the operation to run for a full year.

We are surprised with how little attention the extension received from both opposition parties and civil society organisations, and with how little fuss it is allowed to slip by.

We think it is prudent to repeat our warning of early June: “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.”

Also read: Humpty Dumpty time has arrived for governing alliance and ANC-alliance unity has become a pipe dream

by Piet Coetzer

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