South Africa suffers from a catastrophically poor safety and security situation. Violent confrontational crime has increased for at least a decade; between 2011 and 2021 our homicide rate has increased by over 20%, from 29.8 murders per 100 000 population to a staggering 35.8.
This places South Africa with the second highest murder rate in the world for countries with a population of over 10 million people. Our rape and sexual violence statistics are even worse. Pathetically low conviction rates add further insult to injury – with a mere 9% of sexual assaults successfully prosecuted, and only 15% of homicides.
Broken and Leaderless Policing
Instead of reforming the dysfunctional South African Police Service (SAPS) and purging its incompetent (and corrupt) management, the government implemented a series of significant budget cuts, starting in 2019. These cuts would amount to a massive R20-billion spread over three years – or approximately 20% of the total policing budget.
The government exacerbated this already unsustainable situation further last year by slashing the Visible Policing budget by 7%, whilst simultaneously increasing the VIP protection budget to R1,7-billion. This resulted in fewer police officers than ever before patrolling our streets, while SAPS top management burns through a R1-billion annual salary bill.
Perversely, government VIPs now enjoy increased police protection, whereas ordinary citizens are simply left to fend for themselves. Considering that policing has been practically non-existent in many communities for some time already – most of them bitterly poor – this is disgraceful.
Yet the abysmal state of the SAPS is neither a new nor an unreported scandal. The National Commissioner in October 2018 already admitted to Parliament that the SAPS are “overstretched” and that it is “impossible” for the service to fulfil its constitutional mandate. By the time this admission was forthcoming, the Institute of Race Relations had already written and published three Broken Blue Line reports detailing SAPS dysfunction.
Therefore, policing has been broken and leaderless for over a decade. And the latest announcement of further SAPS budget cuts amounting to R26-billion over the next three years, which will eliminate 24 000 posts, indicates that the situation is rapidly worsening.
The Flames of July 2021
The entire brutal reality struck home hard in July 2021. One of the most destructive outbreaks of rioting and looting in South African history [CH1] not only caught the authorities completely off-guard, but also overwhelmed their ability to contain the unrest – or to even respond meaningfully to it. Across five metros, rioters and looters set businesses and neighbourhoods ablaze for eight days, resulting in over 340 deaths and costing the economy R50-billion in losses.
The authorities responded to the unrest poorly, incompetently, and ineffectively. Some units ran out of ammunition within the first few days, and had to rely on civilians donating their private stocks. In many communities law enforcement was entirely absent, and residents were abandoned to their fate. Shocking allegations circulated in the media of police ordered not to intervene while businesses went up in flames.
In the midst of this chaos, ordinary citizens mobilised their existing security structures to protect their neighbourhoods and businesses, and to fill the security vacuum left by the absent authorities. Armed residents collaborated with private security firms to form defensive lines to keep rioters and looters from overrunning their communities. They also created networks to distribute food, water, and medical assistance to those who needed it.
It was for the most part a mad scramble. But it was clear from the beginning that affected communities weren’t simply going to accept what was happening to them. Instead, they chose to proactively act in ways to secure themselves. And as a result, you can find numerous examples of incredible heroism and a staunch determination to prevail in nearly every affected community.
Citizens rally where the authorities are absent
In Durban a small group of armed civilians and a handful of on- and off-duty police officers worked together to secure Westville Hospital. This plucky band successfully fended off over 1000 rioters who repeatedly tried to overrun the hospital grounds. Throughout a long, perilous night these brave individuals held their positions until they were relieved by none other than the SAPS Special Task Force the next morning.
In other parts of Durban and KwaZulu-Natal, local neighbourhood watch groups teamed up with taxi operators to secure businesses and suburbs. Residents from neighbouring townships offered their assistance to more affluent suburbs in order to protect shops. South Africans of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds united against chaos and criminality – a practical example of the real Rainbow Nation at work.
Roughly 500 kilometres away in Soweto, the local community mobilised itself in defence of residences and businesses. A large group of armed civilians successfully protected Maponya Mall, a vital part of the township’s economy, from looters and rioters for several days.
Similar scenes played out across other parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
Wherever the authorities left a vacuum, residents tried their best to fill it. And fortunately in many cases, did so with great success. If it weren’t for these ordinary civilians – many of whom were armed – who put themselves at risk to protect their neighbourhoods and businesses, the situation would undoubtedly have been markedly worse. Unfortunately, irrationally preventing citizens from protecting themselves, and outlawing their most effective means of doing so, is exactly what the government is trying to do.
The threat of civilian disarmament
The July Riots came hot on the heels of government’s latest proposed Firearms Control Act Amendment Bill. Among other far-reaching amendments, the Bill sought to outlaw the ownership and use of firearms for purposes of self-defence. The consequence hereof would be that only the police (obviously including VIP protection units) and the military would be allowed guns to protect themselves.
In writing this amendment bill the government not only ignored its own commissioned research by the Wits School of Governance, which strongly advised the authorities to “stop misplaced, unconditional faith in the ability of the FCA to solve crime” and “rather concentrate on policing”, but hid the paper from public view for six years – and only released it after being assailed by PAIA requests.
The Civilian Secretariat of Police (CSP) then manufactured a socioeconomic impact assessment (SEIA) to support its position. The SEIA report was poorly reasoned, amateurishly written, and outright deceitful in its treatment of data. Yet it formed the foundation for the government’s latest attempt to disarm the citizenry.
The public, however, would have none of it. The overwhelming majority of submissions tendered during the public participation process completely and viciously rejected the proposed Bill. After widespread outcry in the media, the situation was becoming untenable for the Minister of Police, especially with a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee that was becoming increasingly impatient with SAPS dysfunction.
The July Riots were perhaps the final nail in the Bill’s coffin. When the authorities demonstrated catastrophic failure to maintain law and order they irreversibly dispelled the illusion that the State could protect its citizens. It thus surprised no one when the Portfolio Committee announced the decision to hold the Bill back for further consultation.
Citizens are on their own
The July Riots merely demonstrated what any observant person already knew – that the SAPS is wholly incapable of protecting the citizens of the Republic; a reality that is unlikely to change. Hence the citizens are on their own and must become the first responders to their personal emergencies. Fortunately, this is something our nation is rather good at – another thing proved by the July Riots.
The issue involves much more than gun ownership. Yet without firearms in lawful civilian hands our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones is diminished. This is precisely why civil society must continue to guard against, and staunchly resist, any further attempts at civilian disarmament through stricter gun control legislation. Because if Minister of Police Bheki Cele had earlier got his way in taking away citizens’ firearms, last year’s riots would have been far more destructive and deadly.
1st published on The Daily Friend.