Guys with guns aren’t in charge T
he Zimbabwean security services are one of those where the line between loyalty to the nation and loyalty to the party is very blurred.
The top brass were transplanted directly from the liberation armies and put in charge of the various arms of the security services. Having been trained in the Eastern bloc and China, where the communist parties and the state were one, they also saw Zimbabwe and Zanu-PF as a unit.
And so it was that when Zanu-PF faced the prospect of losing electoral power in the early 2000s, the security chiefs were at the forefront of mobilising a defence of Robert Mugabe. They assisted the Zanu-PF militias and war veterans in the invasions of farms and the brutalisation of government opponents. Like the security arms of oppressive regimes the world over, they tortured and killed opposition leaders, and clamped down on independent media.
So committed were they to the party and Mugabe that, on the eve of elections, the uniformed chiefs publicly endorsed Zanu-PF and warned voters against backing the opposition. They vowed never to salute anyone but Mugabe, sending a clear message they would not accept a result that was not in favour of their liberation movement.
Just before the 2008 elections, army chief General Constantine Chiwenga declared: “Elections are coming, and the army will not support or salute sellouts and agents of the West before, during and after the presidential elections ... We will not support anyone other than President Mugabe, who has sacrificed a lot for this country.”
Prisons chief Paradzai Zimondi, himself a war veteran, echoed Chiwenga’s sentiments and instructed his charges on their electoral choices.
He was quoted by Irin news service as saying: “I am giving you an order to vote for President Mugabe; I will only support the leadership of President Mugabe, I will not salute [Simba] Makoni or [Morgan] Tsvangirai ... We still remember the blood and the graves of our gallant sons and daughters who died for this country, and we shall not sell them out.”
Sadly, the behaviour of the Zimbabwean security chiefs is not unique. It happens everywhere at varying levels and takes different forms. Even in the foremost democracies, politicians find it hard to resist abusing the security services to prop themselves up and achieve narrow ends. In the US, the abuse of the FBI under Edgar J Hoover is one such example.
In this country, the police, military and intelligence services were once the National Party’s private army. They did everything to ensure the apartheid system was strictly enforced and dealt viciously with the NP’s opponents.
With this in mind, the drafters of our Constitution ensured that the powers of the security forces would be curbed in a democratic South Africa. Besides the battery of laws and institutions keeping them in check, the security arms were to be brought under civilian oversight.
Those oversight arms have had limited success, mainly as a result of government not wanting them to be effective. Police ministers and commissioners did not like their members being policed and therefore made sure the Independent Police Investigative Directorate enjoyed as little independence as possible. The police secretariat has largely been a toy telephone. The intelligence services’ inspector general has always been a deployee of Luthuli House, taking indirect instructions from the mysterious spy floor at the ANC headquarters. The prisons have been slightly better, while the army’s oversight mechanism has had little to do.
Even within these limitations, their existence has had the effect of being a conscience to those in uniform and served as a reminder that South Africa does not want to return to being a security state.
So it was pleasing to see the police being dealt with harshly when they united behind national commissioner Riah Phiyega. Standing in defiance of the president, the police brass issued a statement in support of their boss, who is due to face a fitness-to-hold-office inquiry.
Saying they were “concerned about the prevailing unfair and largely negative attitude” towards her, they declared “full support” and were “fully behind” Phiyega. This week they were forced to back off during a dressing-down by MPs. With tails between their legs, their Northern Cape police boss, Janet Basson, grovelled and said: “I apologise to the committee. I apologise to the president of the country and I commit this will never happen again.”
It was a small but noteworthy development. It may have been made easy by the fact that Phiyega is already toast and will soon no longer be able to cover her hairline with a police cap.
But it sent a strong message to the guys with guns that it is civilians and not them who are in charge of the country. This was an important statement and one which should not be a one-off.
It should embolden society to push back against the dangerous encroachment of the security sector into the everyday lives of South Africans.
It’s a hard thing to accept. Okay, I am a muppet, but the DA part is all balls