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  • GENRE: Current events, politics, crime
  • LENGTH: 9 700 words
  • READING TIME: +/- 40 mins
  • ISBN: 978-0-9921727-8-7
About David Bruce

David Bruce has been researching and writing about policing, violence and the criminal justice system since 1996, and is regarded as the country's leading experts on issues relating to police use of force. He has worked for a variety of think-tanks and NGOs, including the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the Institute for Security Studies, and Corruption Watch.

and the Doctrine of Maximum Force
David Bruce

One year later, we’re still left with questions about the August 2012 Marikana massacre. Over the course of the last year, the media has reported on many horrific accounts from witnesses. But as a nation, we’re still waiting to hear crucial details, understand what happened, and know who will be held responsible.

In this MampoerShort, written shortly after the massacre, David Bruce, an expert on policing and the justice system, discusses the concept of ‘maximum force’, used to justify police actions at Marikana. The concept is not one generally used in police training colleges. But, as Bruce explains, the term has gained currency amongst the leadership and members of key police units. As many as 1 448 police officers, currently active in the force, have criminal records. How can we respect and trust them?

Bruce takes an in-depth look at changes in police culture since 1998, and how these may have contributed to the Marikana tragedy. A year later, his arguments remain as compelling as ever.


The SAPS D-Day operation that afternoon began with the police erecting a barbed wire barrier. According to a subsequent police statement, this was intended “to protect their members adjacent to the protesters”. The police, the statement said, intended “to disperse the protesters from their stronghold into smaller groups which would be more manageable for the police to disarm”. According to Adriao, the spokesperson, this was all that they wanted to achieve. “We have tried over a number of days to negotiate with the leaders and with the gathering here at the mine. Our objective is to get the people to surrender their weapons and to disperse peacefully,” he said.

The operation was not a conventional crowd management exercise to disperse the gathering but one intended to disarm a hostile and potentially unpredictable crowd. But disarming a crowd means forcing it to submit to police authority. It is a dangerous call, fraught with risks of escalation. If armed miners defied the police, they could only be forced to disarm at gunpoint. And if they continued to resist, this would likely lead to the use of lethal force.

The concept of maximum force has no currency in the field of policing. Indeed, it is unlikely that one would find a policy document for any police service in any democratic country that proposes that the police conduct their duties while deploying ‘maximum force’. Nevertheless, the concept was used by the SAPS to explain their actions at Marikana. The statement issued the day after the massacre under the name of SAPS National Commissioner, Riya Phiyega, says that the police at Marikana “were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves”.

In general it is not advisable to draw a straightforward line between pronouncements made by politicians on public platforms and what public servants understand and do. Many policy pronouncements are forgotten instantly. But the SAPS statement is highly unusual because, on its face, it amounts to an admission by the SAPS that they violated the law. Section 13(3)(b) of the SAPS Act states that “where a member who performs an official duty is authorised by law to use force, he or she may use only the minimum force which is reasonable in the circumstances”.

The law says that the police must use minimum force; the police say they used maximum force. There are two implications. Neither is good. Neither is exclusive of the other. The first, possibility, is that some among the police leadership have come to embrace a doctrine of maximum force, at least in some circumstances. The other is that, when the phrase ‘maximum force’ is used by the Minister, it has been understood by the police to mean ‘lethal force’. If this is so, what the police hear when their Minister speaks of the appropriateness of using ‘maximum force’ in fighting certain kinds of crime, is that they are encouraging to kill.

How widely the term ‘maximum force’ is used in the SAPD is not clear. One revealing piece of information are some notes, made by a SAPS member, distressed by a new ‘Firearms in law enforcement’ course that he attended early in 2011. The notes make no reference to ‘maximum force’. But, he says, “The trainer kept saying, ‘Shooting in the SAPS has been neglected for many years and they're finally encouraging people to shoot again.’”

The police officer says of his course that “We were given a two hour lecture on the use of lethal force, half of which I'm pretty sure was incorrect. For example, the instructor told us that if a member is being assaulted by a big man, they have the right to shoot him dead immediately. Someone asked, ‘But why not use pepper spray?’, at which the instructor laughed and made a joke about ‘you've obviously never been donnered’. He then reiterated that police could shoot at the slightest hint of threat.”


+4 #1 mambo 2013-04-12 17:42
The media must stop making heroes out of law breakers. Why would the police target eg Andries Tatane out of the whole crowd? Why would the police pick up on a "poor taxi driver" and ignore all other people at that rank? The media says nothing about the fact that the said Marcia was fighting the police prior to his arrest that he was fighting with the police. By this, I dont mean to justify the death of those two suspects, but just like what any traffic officer will tell you:" any major accident is usually preceeded by the breaking of the law".The media have got this tendency of making heroes out of these poeopl Recently a witness for the police(for Marikana) was gunned down very little was said abvout him being a breadwinner and no newspaper visited his home to find out whether he didnt teach Maths,Venecular or maybe how to trap a ball.I am also a citizen of this country and to be honest,when I see the police, Ifeel safe.They have stopped me at different places at different times and they have never treated me badly. Can somebody tell me why when we are protesting for for water that we must go breaking stop signs, burning the libraries and why must we stone the police when they come.

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