The army is a loose cannon. Now imagine one 20 times bigger

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The army is a loose cannon. Now imagine one 20 times bigger

I have been trying to see what a deployment of 75,000 troops actually looks like. And I think it’s worth sharing

Columnist
The army patrol Sejwetla, an informal settlement in Alexandra, Joburg.
THE CHASE The army patrol Sejwetla, an informal settlement in Alexandra, Joburg.
Image: Alon Skuy/File

The news that the SANDF is rolling out the largest deployment of troops in the democratic era is alarming.

Firstly, the numbers seem enormous. The 2,280 deployed at the start of the crisis felt like a lot. Another 73,180 utterly dwarfs that figure.

The way the news was released – not as a presidential address to the nation but as a dubious-looking letter racing around Twitter – also did nothing to allay any fears. It felt like something being slipped through a back door.

Worse, once journalists got onto the story, some extremely ominous soundbites started coming out of the top brass.

TimesLIVE reported one particularly chilling little remark by SANDF chief of joint operations Lt-Gen Rudzani Maphwanya, made before parliament on Wednesday.  

So just remember, guys: if you’re getting beaten in the face with the butt of an assault rifle ... it’s none of your business.

“While we are being provoked, law enforcement will not allow anyone to insult the president,” said Maphwanya. “We will react immediately. It is important that this is known.”

Well, that’s awkward. I used to call Ramaphosa “Cyril the Human Ball-Gag” in this column: am I now a target of opportunity for Maphwanya and the rest of the Royal Guard? And when, exactly, did the SANDF redeploy from the 21st century to the 12th?

Not to be outdone, though, ANC MP Jerome Maake told us all to sit down and shut up.

According to TimesLIVE, this champion of democracy explained: “It’s the commanders who must tell the footsoldiers what to do, not each and every Tom, Dick and Harry ... It’s none of our business.”

So just remember, guys: if you’re getting beaten in the face with the butt of an assault rifle, or made to do squats because you’ve been stopped with your shopping, just remember that it’s none of your business.

Yes, it’s a lot to take in. For many, it’s hard not to picture some of the grimmer images of history, like Casspirs crawling past burning blockades, or vast columns of stormtroopers goose-stepping through Paris. Unless they are a liberation army, the sight of large groups of soldiers entering cities is seldom reassuring.

I don’t want to underplay the potential repercussions of the deployment. The SANDF is a fantastically blunt object. When it comes up against hungry, angry, desperate South Africans – and it seems to want to ­– there will only be one outcome.

However, as a way to self-soothe, I have been looking at the numbers, trying to see what a deployment of 75,000 troops actually looks like. And I think it’s worth sharing.

At its most basic and bloodless, the point of the deployment seems to be to offer logistical support (set up and staff field hospitals, establish lines of transport and communication), and to enforce or maintain the regulations of the lockdown. This piece was written before Ramaphosa’s Thursday address, but I’m assuming we are now entering a long period of phased easing, with the state’s security apparatus still very much in view for months to come.

It would, therefore, make sense that most of the troops go to those parts of SA that are the most densely populated. About 66% of South Africans live in urban areas, and I would guess that the municipalities of Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Sedibeng, West Rand, Cape Town, eThekwini, Mangaung, Buffalo City and Nelson Mandela Bay would account for most of those.

Using this logic, I can imagine a scenario in which the SANDF deploys about two-thirds of its troops in those 10 municipalities, and uses the remaining third to cover the rest of the country, where national and provincial borders, major highways, outlying industrial zones and many smaller municipalities still need to be patrolled or serviced.

Fifty-thousand troops rolling into 10 municipalities sounds appalling. You’d be forgiven for picturing armoured columns choking highway or grinding past every corner, like in the movies. But I would argue the figures paint a slightly different picture.

For those who fear that the dogs of war are being let slip, this will be scant consolation.

According to municipalities.co.za, those 10 municipalities cover an area of about 38,000km2. In other words, what we’re talking about is a deployment where every 2km2 of urban SA – a square with each side measuring 2km, which, in many of our cities, can comfortably contain between 50 and 200 blocks – is patrolled by just three soldiers.

But of course, that’s not how armies deploy. The troops, wherever they are posted, will gather in larger groups – meaning vast swathes of urban South Africa will see almost no army presence whatsoever.

For those who fear the dogs of war are being let slip, this will be scant consolation. It will be no consolation at all for the inevitable victims of SANDF brutality: a 20-fold increase in the number of troops in our cities almost guarantees a 20-fold increase in the number of cases of abuse.

But what the figures suggest is that this isn’t a mass military occupation. It is an act of desperation; a way to rush out, in the words of defence expert Römer Heitman (interviewed by Daily Maverick’s Greg Nicolson), “a bunch of organised, disciplined people with a command and control structure and communications”.

Of course, it’s frightening. Of course, lawyers and civic activists must keep protesting. Of course, it could go horribly wrong.

But perhaps the biggest risk the deployment poses is paradoxical: that it might be more than enough to ignite an angry, hungry country; but hopelessly too little to assist whatever kind of lockdown we’re going into in the coming weeks.

For now, though, we can only wait and see. And pray that the likes of Lt-Gen Maphwanya stay as far from SA’s citizens as is humanly possible.

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