The good and bad of the Public Order Policing Unit upgrade

The equipment Phahlane announced was worth R50m, but the final bill could run to R245m.

South Africa is the place of stern warnings: our politicians and top cops are forever wagging their tongues and fingers at alleged criminals.

If each of them had to put a rand down every time they issued a threat – or even made a promise – then we bet this country would be well on the way to solving the poverty problem.

The latest of these stern warnings came this week from the former acting police commissioner Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane, as he unveiled new equipment for the police’s Public Order Policing Unit (POP). He warned that those who loot and act illegally during protests would be brought to book.

Leaving aside the former commissioner’s hot air, the upgrading of the unit is both a good thing and a worrying development. Firstly, there is the expense.

The equipment Phahlane announced was worth R50 million, but the final bill could run to R245 million. That’s a lot of money.

You could buy one overpriced Nkandla for that … It is also a worrying sign of yet more militarisation – and even polarisation – in our society.

However, there can be no denying that a strong, but also well-trained, police response is needed to what used to be referred to in the old days as riotous assembly.

Protest is protected by constitutional guarantees of free speech, but so, too, should the personal safety, lives and property of innocent bystanders.

One of the reasons for the explosion in protests is because there are seldom consequences for those who riot and attack others, or loot … acts often done in the presence of the police.

But equipment will count for nothing if the police command structure – and its political leadership – does not know when to deploy the unit and what levels of force are appropriate. Marikana is a harsh and bloody lesson we dare not forget.



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