Home Opinion and Features Can we rely on our police to safeguard the municipal elections?

Can we rely on our police to safeguard the municipal elections?

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OPINION: The police’s ability to ensure a relatively safe environment for the municipal elections should therefore be judged rather on their proven track record for such events. It is no guarantee that it will be completely incident free, writes Dr Johan Burger.

FILE – The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJOINTS) has established a Priority Committee for the safeguarding of these elections. File photo: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)

OPINION: The police’s ability to ensure a relatively safe environment for the municipal elections should therefore be judged rather on their proven track record for such events. It is no guarantee that it will be completely incident free, writes Dr Johan Burger.

As South Africans approach the November 1 local government elections, there appears to be some element of apprehension about possible political violence. This is not surprising, due to the shocking widespread public violence and disorder that took place in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng during July this year.

In view of the inability of the state security agencies to prevent or adequately respond to the large-scale violence, looting and destruction, it is unsurprising that many people appear to be sceptical about their ability to safeguard the 2021 municipal elections countrywide. Low levels of public trust and confidence in the government generally and the SAPS, in particular, is contributing to a level of public scepticism about whether public safety around the elections can be guaranteed.

There are, however, important differences between the two situations in July and November. For example, during July the police had very little, if any, early warning intelligence of the violence that was to come.

Consequently, they were clearly unprepared for the scale and spread of the violence and destruction that followed. However, for the upcoming elections they have had ample time to plan and put measures in place to identify networks that may try to instigate violence, and locations where outbreaks may occur.

Another important difference is the excellent record of the police in relation to safeguarding so-called major national events. These include previous regular elections and large-scale sporting events.

In the run-up to the World Cup in 2010 there was a lot of negative speculation, both locally and internationally, about the high crime levels in South Africa and the assumed inability of the police to ensure the safety of the soccer teams and the expected large number of their supporters. Nevertheless, the SAPS and other law-enforcement agencies pulled off a very successful World Cup with very few incidents.

The ability of the police to safeguard the elections should not be judged by the crime situation in this country, nor other outbreaks of public violence. Our high crime levels are a result of many complex factors and are not only the result of challenges our police are struggling with.

The police’s ability to ensure a relatively safe environment for the municipal elections should therefore be judged rather on their proven track record for such events. It is no guarantee that it will be completely incident free, but past events have shown incidents of electoral-related violence to be relatively limited.

The reason why the police successfully manage major events but struggle to bring the crime situation under control has to do with their tried-and-tested operational approach in managing large events. Firstly, major events are anticipated well in advance so that adequate planning can occur. Secondly, large event management depends on particular operational concepts and co-ordinating structures which are supported by all participating government institutions.

During recent discussions with the police I was informed that they are applying precisely the same operational concepts and co-ordinating structures for the 2021 municipal elections.

The process usually starts with instructions through the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJOINTS) which in turn receives its instructions from the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Structure (JCPS) at Cabinet and Directors-General levels.

Accordingly, the NatJOINTS established a Priority Committee for the safeguarding of these elections. This committee is co-chaired by senior representatives of the SAPS (a major-general) and the Electoral Commission of South Africa. It also includes other government departments, such as the SANDF, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), Home Affairs and representatives from the Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee (ICC).

It is the responsibility of the Priority Committee to do the security planning for the elections and to regularly brief the NatJOINTS and other structures where required on progress in this regard. The operational planning is based on the regular intelligence briefing by the ICC.

According to the information at my disposal, the Priority Committee currently meets daily to ensure that they stay on track with their planning. Part of the planning is to identify real and potential risks, as well as high crime areas for specific attention, such as the deployment of sufficient police officials into these areas, as well as to have Public Order Police and tactical teams on standby in case their support is needed.

A few days before the elections the Priority Committee dissolves to form Joint Operational Committees (JOCOMs) and Joint Operational Centres (JOCs) at national, provincial and district levels to ensure the implementation of the operational and contingency plans. As is the case with all operational committees and centres, they have the additional responsibility to also deal with unexpected eventualities. These committees are dissolved only once possible post-elections security threats are over.

From my own experiences in this environment and from the recent information I received from the police, I believe that they and their counterparts from other government agencies are as ready as they can be for this year’s municipal elections.

* Dr Johan Burger is a consultant with the Institute for Security Studies.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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