Cop memo ordered “rubber bullets as last resort”
POLICE officers were ordered in an official memo late last year to not even use rubber bullets except as a “last resort” in controlling public protests – in stark contrast to the live rounds used by officers in the Lonmin mine bloodbath.
The memo’s instructions raise further questions about the level of the police response when they shot at protesting strikers this week at Rustenburg’s Marikana mine on Thursday.
Some 34 died and more than 78 were injured in the incident which appeared to follow some strikers storming towards the police line.
On December 20, 2011, Lieutenant General Elias Mawela, the national divisional commissioner for Operational Response Services (responsible for maintaining public order), issued a memo clearly aimed at reducing the potential for violence in the police response to public protests.
The order – in the possession of M24i (click below to read it) – was circulated to all provincial commissioners and provincial heads of Operational Response Services.
The memo made a clear reference to the outcry following the death of Andries Tatane, who was killed by a rubber bullet during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in the Free State in April 2011.
“The use of rubber rounds and shotguns must be stopped with immediate effect,” the memo said.
“Less lethal methods to manage crowds must be implemented. Negotiations are still the first resort. A gradual response such as the use of pyrotechnics, water cannon and the 40mm launcher must then be used,” the memo said.
Police at Marikana had used water cannon, rubber bullets, shotguns, teargas and stun grenades in the lead-up to the shooting.
“The purpose of offensive actions must be to de-escalate conflict with the minimum level of force to accomplish the goal,” said Mawela’s memo.
“The degree of force must be proportional to the seriousness of the situation and the threat posed in terms of situational appropriateness,” he wrote.
“The use of force must always be reasonable in the circumstances and force must be discontinued once the objective has been achieved.”
Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi said the ministry had reviewed public order policing to ensure that public protests were ”effectively managed, with clear guidelines to the police”.
“This should not be misunderstood to imply that armed people should attack police and that police would not defend themselves. As much as it is the responsibility of police to manage such protests within the framework of the law, the responsibility of protesters is equally important,” he said.
“ That is what our Constitution speaks of; that is, rights of citizens to express their grievances in an orderly, peaceful and mature manner. Nowhere in the Constitution does it stipulate that people must burn property, intimidate those citizens who wish not to partake in a protest and even killing police and innocent citizens; yet disguise and justify such actions behind a banner of protesting.”
He would declined to comment further on the the Marikana incident saying they would respect the commission of inquiry announced by President Jacob Zuma on Friday.
He said he could not comment on the Mawela memo and referred questions on it to the SAPS who did not reply to requests for comment.
Dr Johan Burger, of the Institute for Security Studies, said as far as he was aware these instructions still stood.
“I have no knowledge that the order of Mawela was repealed,” said Burger. “If so it was never communicated to me.”
“What I do know is that something must have changed now because the police are already working for some time using rubber bullets and shotguns again,” he said.
He pointed out that police minister Nathi Mthethwa had said only two weeks ago in a speech in Mpumalanga that he preferred the police to use water cannons rather than even rubber bullets.
“Unfortunately the minister did not take into account the fact that there are only 10 water cannons in the country and each year more than 10 000 incidents of crowd control occur,” he said.
“I support the use of rubber bullets, because the police then have more options regarding non-lethal violence, of course, if it is used correctly, and not like in Ficksburg,” he said.
Idasa’s Executive Director, Paul Graham, said after 1994 there was an emphasis on training the police to control crowds and use less lethal methods.
“This seems to have all gone out of the back window. There is a real problem with training and procedures. Even the special task force of the police which was present at the shooting seems to lack specific procedures,” he said.
“The order you are revering to implies that there is still a huge amount of confusion amongst the police on crowd control issues,” Graham said.
Retired SA military colonel, David Peddle, who has consulted on public order policing for defenceWeb, said there was a clear lack of planning in events leading up to the shootings.
“You have to plan for different contingencies and justify what you did. Some members only had rifles and not proper crowd control equipment like batons, shields, helmets and teargas masks. Also the intervention unit and task force members only had one weapon,” he said.
“By law police must use different non-lethal options before live rounds are used, ” he said.
“I don’t know if the Mawela order was revoked, but I know there was a lot of discussion that it should be revoked. This happens if you appoint a national commissioner who is a civilian and then gives orders,” he said.
He was referring to a comment by Commissioner Riah Phiyega that she “gave police the responsibility to execute the task they needed to do.”