Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Unsavoury Military Manoeuvres And the Country's Coercive Disarray

By Anthony Butler

Many South Africans were alarmed by last week's violent confrontation between soldiers and police officers in the grounds of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. After all, the organised coercive instruments of a modern state are not supposed to engage in running battles on the president's front lawn.

States vary widely in capacity and legitimacy, but beneath their consent-generating rituals (such as representative democracy) they share a common coercive character. Laws are passed, regulations are imposed, and taxes are levied. If citizens do not comply with the state's demands, they may be forcibly abducted, condemned, and sent away to prison. As mechanisms for enforcing collective decisions, states usually enjoy what social theorist Max Weber called a "monopoly of the legitimate use of violence".

The South African state is somewhat unconventional. Internally, it lacks legitimacy. Criminals and businesspeople can often outsmart the courts or outshoot a police service widely perceived as the enforcer of injustice. Citizens instead call upon community institutions, vigilantes and a host of private security companies to deliver what they see as real justice

Bantustan bureaucrats, resurgent traditional authorities and politicised public officials meanwhile contribute to the state's limited coherence and circumscribed logistical control over the territory.

Memories of apartheid destabilisation and systemic weaknesses likewise curtail permissible and possible external intervention by the state. Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu recently claimed (with a straight face) that armed force readiness should not be openly discussed for reasons of state security. The diplomatic representatives of foreign powers, however, already appear to believe SA suffers from a profound military incapacity.

With its expensive modern surface vessels and submarines, the navy should be effective in its sphere of operations. Cynics, however, argue that its reach is limited to False Bay. The air force is likewise formidably equipped, but it suffers from severe human resource problems. As for the army, Sisulu's preference for secrecy simply reinforces perceptions that SA has lost a significant part -- perhaps most -- of its ground force operational capability.

There is a bright side to military incapacity, of course, in that the potential for army interference in civilian government is greatly reduced. The disarray of the state's internal and external coercive apparatus nevertheless carries significant costs.

First, the indirect and long-term costs of crime, corruption, porous borders and dysfunctional courts are huge. The failings of these systems also create significant obstacles to the implementation of desirable public policy in fields as diverse as transportation, social policy, and health.

Second, the state's coercive apparatus appears to be intractably in conflict with itself, and indeed at war with the rule of law. The display at the Union Buildings was merely the latest in a long line of incidents.

We have seen members of the South African Police Service engage in a prolonged shoot-out with municipal police on a Johannesburg highway. Speeding blue light convoys of ministers and officials have been championed by incoming national police commissioner Bheki Cele. The intelligence services played, and will continue to play, a major role in the debilitating internal conflicts of the African National Congress (ANC).

Third, the coercive machinery is becoming an increasingly politicised and unproductive burden on the public finances. Citizens rely on private instruments such as security companies and vigilantes to defend the broader public interest. Political leaders meanwhile appoint personal cronies to public positions in the state security, military and policing systems in order to advance their private interests.

The military's procurement orgy has starved operational budgets, while top-heavy staffing establishments cosset bottom-heavy political appointees. While the defence system is decreasingly equipped actually to fight, moreover, it is being deployed to glorify militarisation in the eyes of the younger generation, to protect the interests of "military veterans", and to create myths about ANC exiles' purported "armed struggle" against apartheid.

Certain senior military officers and bureaucrats are meanwhile developing entrepreneurial skills that are not unrelated to the vast land and property portfolios of the Department of Defence.

The enticing combination of huge resources and justified secrecy inevitably attracts unsavoury elements to the sector. Military and state security systems, and the associated arms industry, continue to provide a unique opportunity for disreputable members of the pre- and post-apartheid establishments to collaborate in exploiting public institutions for personal benefit.

Butler teaches politics at Wits University.

1 Opinion(s):

FishEagle said...

He doesn't beat around the bush. I love it!