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Weapons and equipment issued to members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) vary depending on the specialization of the police unit and the event in question.  For instance, members of crime combatting units, which engage in crime control duties and crowd management during demonstrations and protests, carry weapons and equipment commensurate with a specific task.  It appears that officers carrying out routine police duties carry pepper spray, a 9mm Z88/Beretta pistol, and an R5 assault rifle.  Officers assigned to crowd management duties during public gatherings and protests are issued body armor, armored vehicles, stun grenades, shotguns, and rubber rounds.  Members of the Special Task Force, a unit tasked with engaging in high-risk operations, have in their arsenal a wide range of equipment and weapons, including different types of small arms, assault rifles, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles. 

A number of statutes and police regulations govern questions of use of force and weapons.  All laws place great emphasis on the use of the minimum amount of force necessary to deal with incidents, and permit the use of deadly force only in limited, dangerous situations. 

The deaths of individuals as a result of police shootings and the incidence of deaths of police officers in the line of duty remain consistently high.  In the two years from 2008/09 to 2009/10, 1,092 people were killed as the result of use of force by the police.  During that same period 216 members of the South African Police Service were killed in the line of duty.  In addition, there have been widespread controversies regarding police misconduct seemingly exacerbated by the surfacing of videos showing members of the SAPS using force against detainees.

I.  Introduction

South Africa’s population is estimated at about 52.8 million.[1]  According to the South Africa Police Service’s (SAPS’) annual report for 2012/13, the country has 1,132 police stations and 240 other types of contact points throughout the nine provinces.[2]  SAPS has a total of 197,946 personnel of which 155,531 are South African Police Service Act (SAPS Act)[3] employees (i.e., sworn officers).[4]  The same report noted that in March of 2013, the police-to-population ratio was 1:336.[5]

SAPS is headed by the National Commissioner appointed under the terms of the Constitution and the SAPS Act.[6]  Under his direct supervision are four deputy national commissioners (within whose jurisdiction the different divisions and components of SAPS fall) and provincial commissioners.[7]  One of the divisions within SAPS is the Operational Response Service, which includes five different units with specialized tasks: the Border Police, the SAPS Air Wing, the Special Task Force, Crime Combatting Units, and Intervention Units.[8]  The equipment issued to Crime Combatting Units, which fight crime and engage in crowd management activities during protests, and the Special Task Force, a unit that deals with high-risk operations, are discussed below.  

SAPS receives funding through parliamentary appropriations.  In the 2012/13 budget year, the SAPS expenditure was around ZAR63.1 billion (about US$5.9 billion).[9]  No information regarding whether SAPS receives surplus military equipment from the South African Defence Forces (SANDF) was located; however, SANDF provides assistance to SAPS in carrying out certain policing functions in limited instances.  For example, President Zuma recently authorized SANDF to assist SAPS in maintaining law and order during the general elections and presidential inauguration.[10]    

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II.  Police Weapons and Equipment

A.  Officers on Public Order Policing Duties

The Crime Combatting Units (CCUs) within the Operational Response Service (OPS), which have seen various restructurings over the years, appear to have the dual function of combatting crime and performing crowd management during protests, gatherings, and major events.[11]  The types of weapons and ammunition issued to these police units are regulated by what are known as standing orders, regulations issued by the OPS, and may vary depending on the operation in question.[12]  For instance, Standing Order (General) 262 regulates the types of weapons and ammunition that may be used by the police during public gatherings or protests.[13]  This Standing Order bans and/or restricts the use of the following weapons and ammunition for the purpose of crowd management operations during public gatherings or protests:

    (a)    The use of 37 mm stoppers (prohibited);

    (b)   The use of firearms and sharp ammunition including birdshot and buckshot (prohibited); and

    (c)    The use of rubber bullets (shotgun batons) (may only be used to disperse a crowd in extreme circumstances, if less forceful methods prove to be ineffective-restricted).[14]

It appears that members of CCUs do or will soon be required to carry the following equipment when they are on crowd management duty at public gatherings and protests:

  • Body armor and helmets
  • Shields
  • Batons
  • Water cannons
  • Armored vehicles
  • Specified caliber firearms and ammunition
  • Communication and video equipment
  • Mobile operational centers[15]

It appears that members of CCUs also carry additional equipment, including pepper spray, stun grenades, gas masks, 12-gauge shotguns, and rubber rounds when engaging in crowd management during public gatherings and protests.[16] 

The standard weapons issued to operational police are said to include pepper spray, a 9mm Z88/Beretta pistol, and an R5 assault rifle.[17]  The introduction of Tasers is apparently being considered; in 2012 a number of such devices were issued to members of specialized police units as part of a pilot program.[18]  One news report indicated that, in addition to the equipment issued by SAPS, some police officers carry unsanctioned tactical equipment, including torches, knives, and Taser-like equipment.[19]

B.  Special Task Force

The Special Task Force, also part of the OPS, deals with all high-risk operations including hostage situations and terrorist attacks.[20]  Members of this unit are trained to use various weapons and equipment, including assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, pistols, grenade launchers, minor explosive devices, bush craft, battle craft, heavy vehicle operations, helicopter deployments, and sniper rifles.[21]

Members of this unit are equipped with various gear, weapons, and ammunition, including the following:

  • Small arms (H&K USP 9mm x 19 caliber, H&K USP Compact 9mm x 19 caliber, and H&K MP5N 9mm x 19 caliber)
  • Assault rifles (R5 Assault Rifle 5.56 mm x 45 caliber, and FN FAL Para/R3 Assault Rifle 7.62 mm (.308 in.) caliber)
  • Sniper rifles (McMillan TAC-50 sniper rifle 50BMG caliber, Accuracy International AICS 308 & .338, and Steyr Mannlicher 7.62)
  • Shotguns (RS202M1 shotgun 12 gauge, and RS200 Custom Shotgun (Stompie) 12 gauge)
  • Machine guns (7,62 FN MAG Light Machine Gun (LMG), 7,62mm Browning Machine Gun (BMG) 7,62mm x 51mm caliber, and 12,7mm Browning Machine Gun (BMG) 12,7mm caliber)
  • Grenade launcher (40mm Y2 MK1 Multi Grenade Launcher 40mm caliber)
  • Ammunition and grenades (M26 Hand Grenade, Stun Grenade, and Smoke Grenade)
  • Nightsight and infrared devices (Sniper Nightsight Scope, Wearable Nightsight Goggles, and S8 Infrared Aiming Device)
  • Armored vehicles (Casspir, RG-12 Nyala, and RG 31)
  • Communication and surveillance devices
  • Body armor and battle jackets
  • Breaching equipment
  • Fast rope, climbing and rope access[22]

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III.  Rules on Use of Police Weapons

The SAPS Act imposes some general limitations on the use of force[23] by a police officer; the officer must be on official duty for which he or she has authorization to use force and “may use only the minimum force which is reasonable in the circumstances.”[24]  Whenever there is an alternative to the use of force, police officers are required to employ such alternative.[25]  In addition, the use of a certain degree of force is deemed appropriate only if the police officer “has reasonable grounds to believe that the use of that degree of force is necessary in the circumstances to achieve the objective, and that the effects which the use of that degree of force could reasonably be expected to have, are proportional to the objective to be achieved.”[26]

The Criminal Procedure Act imposes requirements for the use of force and use of deadly force by police officers in the process of making an arrest.  Under this Act, the police may use force to effect arrest in the following circumstances and conditions:

If any arrestor attempts to arrest a suspect and the suspect resists the attempt, or flees, or resists the attempt and flees, when it is clear that an attempt to arrest him or her is being made, and the suspect cannot be arrested without the use of force, the arrestor may, in order to effect the arrest, use force as may be reasonably necessary and proportional in the circumstances to overcome the resistance or to prevent the suspect from fleeing.[27]

In this circumstance, deadly force (force likely to cause serious bodily harm or death, including shooting a person with a firearm) can be used only if the suspect “poses a threat of serious violence to the arrestor or any other person” or there is a reasonable suspicion that he has committed a crime in which he inflicted serious bodily harm or threatened to do so and no other options are available for making an arrest at that moment or later.[28]

In addition, the Criminal Procedure Act permits the use force to counter resistance against entry or search.  When a police officer is trying to make a lawful search of a person or premises, he is authorized to use “such force as may be reasonably necessary to overcome any resistance against such search or against entry of the premises, including breaking any door or window of such premise.”[29]  When a police officer is seeking entry into the premises, he is required to “audibly demand” entry and notify the occupant of his purpose unless he has reasonable grounds to believe that doing so would result in destruction of the item sought for search.[30]

The Regulation of Gathering Act (RGA) and the Standing Order regulate the use of force by the police on crowd management duty during public gatherings and protests.  The RGA provides that if a police officer of a certain rank has reasonable grounds to believe that a gathering or a demonstration poses a danger to persons or property that cannot otherwise be averted, he can order the crowd to disperse; if the crowd fails to do so, the police may, for the purpose of dispersing the crowd, use force, “excluding the use of weapons likely to cause serious bodily injury or death.”[31]  The RGA further states that “[t]he degree of force which may be so used shall not be greater than is necessary for dispersing the persons gathered and shall be proportionate to the circumstances of the case and the object to be attained.”[32]

The RGA permits the use of force, including firearms and other weapons, in the context of crowd management only in the following limited circumstances, if a person

  1. kills or seriously injures, or attempts to kill or seriously injure, or shows a manifest intention of killing or seriously injuring, any person; or
  2. destroys or does serious damage to, or attempts to destroy or to do serious damage to, or shows a manifest intention of destroying or doing serious damage to, any immovable property or movable property considered to be valuable[.][33]

The Standing Order, which states that the “use of force must be avoided at all costs and members deployed for the [crowd management] operation must display the highest degree of tolerance,” also provides a list of specific requirements that a use of force must meet:

  • (a) the purpose of the offensive actions are to de-escalate conflict with the minimum force to accomplish the goal and therefor the success of the actions will be measured by the result of the operation in terms of cost, damage to property, injuries to people and loss of life;
  • (b)   the degree of force must be proportional to the seriousness of the situation and the threat posed in terms of situational appropriateness;
  • (c)   it must be reasonable in the circumstances;
  • (d)   the minimum force must be used to accomplish the goal; and
  • (e)    the use of force must be discontinued once the objective has been achieved.[34]

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IV.  Incidents and Controversy

In South Africa, in the two years from 2008/09 to 2009/10, 1,092 people were killed as a result of the use of force by the police in what is said to be the highest rate of police killing since the late 1990s.[35]  For the 2011 and 2012 calendar years, the US State Department reported that 932 individuals died in police custody or as the result of police action.[36]  From 2009 through 2011, according to a news article, 768 criminal charges were filed against members of SAPS including 516 assault charges, 50 murder charges, and 94 charges of rape.[37]

The incidence of violence directed at members of SAPS also appears to be high.  In the two-year period from 2008/09 to 2009/10, 216 members of SAPS were killed in the line of duty.[38]  However, this was some improvement compared to the numbers of police fatalities in the early days of the transition to democratic rule; in 1994, 265 police were killed in the line of duty and 178 were killed in 2000.[39]  

Various serious allegations of police brutality have been made against the SAPS in recent years.  For instance, in 2000, six white police officers were charged with attempted murder after a 1998 video surfaced showing them “setting dogs on three black prisoners and laughing as the animals mauled their victims.”[40]  Four of the officers were convicted and sent to prison in 2001.[41]  In 2012, claims of misconduct were made after the police killed thirty-four of up three thousand miners who were on strike in the Marikana platinum mine, an incident which came to be known as the Marikana Massacre.[42]  In addition, in 2013, eight police officers were charged with murder after a video showing a man handcuffed to a police car being dragged through the streets of Johannesburg surfaced; the man was later found dead in a police cell.[43]  More recently, in March 2014, a video showing uniformed Western Cape police stripping naked and beating a Nigerian man has stirred up controversy.[44]  Later, one of the two police officers accused of misconduct resigned and the other was fired after a disciplinary hearing.[45]

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Hanibal Goitom
Foreign Law Specialist
September 2014


[1] South Africa Police Service (SAPS), Annual Report 2012/2013 at 25 (Aug. 31, 2013), http://www.gov.za/ documents/download.php?f=200822

[2] Id. at 26.

[3] South African Police Service Act (SAPS Act) 68 of 1995, § 13(3), 27 Butterworths Statutes of South Africa [BSRSA] (revised through 2013), http://www.saps.gov.za/legislation/acts/act68of1995.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] S. Afr. Const., 1996, § 207, http://www.gov.za/documents/constitution/1996/a108-96.pdf; SAPS Act § 6.   

[7] Cap. 17, “Police, Defence and Intelligence” in South Africa Yearbook 2010/11 at 382 (Jan. 2011), http://www.gcis.gov.za/content/resourcecentre/sa-info/yearbook2010-11

[8] Organizational Chart, “Structure of the Service,” in Manual of South African Police 15–16 (undated), http://www.saps.gov.za/resource_centre/paia/eng_part1.pdf; Operational Response Service, SAPS, Department of Police, http://www1.saps.gov.za/careers/operational_response_service.htm (both last visited Sept. 8, 2014).   

[9] SAPS Annual Report, supra note 1, at 190.

[10] Press Release, South African Government Online, President Zuma Employs Members of the SANDF to Support SAPS During Elections (Apr. 30, 2014), http://www.gov.za/speeches/view.php?sid=45365

[11] Ministry of Police, Policy and Guidelines: Policing of Public Protests, Gatherings and Major Events 15 (Aug. 29, 2011), http://www.policesecretariat.gov.za/downloads/policies/policing_public_ protests_2013.pdf; Bilkis Omar, SAPS’ Costly Restructuring: A Review of Public Order Policing Capacity 7 (ISS Monographs Series, No. 138, Oct. 2007). 

[12] Ministry of Police, supra note 11, at 23. 

[13] Id.

[14] Standing Order (General) 262, Crowd Management During Gatherings and Demonstrations, Notice No. 13/2004, § 11(4) (Sept. 16, 2004), available on the University of Pretoria website, at https://web.up.ac.za/sitefiles/file/ 47/15338/SKMBT_28311061513210.pdf

[15] Ministry of Police, supra note 11, at 23 & 24.

[16] Omar, supra note 11, at 47.

[17] Andrew Faull, Will Introducing Taser Guns Reduce Killings by the South African Police Service?, Institute for Security Studies (June 22, 2011), http://www.issafrica.org/iss-today/will-introducing-taser-guns-reduce-killings-by-the-south-african-police-service

[18] Ernest Mabuza, Researcher Says Use of Tasers Could Reduce Incidents of Police Abuse, Business Day (Aug. 6, 2012), http://www.bdlive.co.za/articles/2011/06/27/researcher-says-use-of-tasers-could-reduce-incidents-of-police-abuse;jsessionid=DC6073A63E6B1E9CEA03F19EE13678E7.present2.bdfm

[19] Faull, supra note 17.

[20] Overview, South African Police Special Task Force, http://www.sapstf.org/Overview.aspx (last visited Sept. 8, 2014).   

[21] Training, South African Police Special Task Force, http://www.sapstf.org/Training.aspx (last visited Sept. 8, 2014). 

[22] Equipment, South African Police Special Task Force, http://www.sapstf.org/Equipment.aspx (last visited Sept. 4, 2014).

[23] Nondeadly use of force means the use of physical force (including wrestling a subject to the ground, using wrist locks or arm locks, striking a subject with hands or feet) or mechanical force (such as the use of a baton, exposure to contact with dogs, and natural agent spraying).  Ministry of Police, supra note 11, at 23.

[24] South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995, § 13(3).

[25] D. Bouwer et al., Police, in 20(2) The Laws of South Africa 1 at 129 (2008).

[26] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. § 27.

[30] Id.

[32] Id. § 9(2)(c).

[33] Id. § 9(2)(d).

[34] Standing Order (General) 262, § 11.

[35] David Bruce, Beyond Section 49: Control of the Use of Lethal Force, S. Afr. Crime Q. No. 36 (June 2011), http://www.issafrica.org/uploads/CQ36Bruce.pdf

[36] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2012 Human Rights Report: South Africa 1 (Apr. 19, 2013), http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/204378.pdf

[37] South Africa’s Police: Kill and Be Killed, The Economist (Aug. 27, 2011), http://www.economist.com/ node/21526932.

[38] R. Botha & J. Visser, Forceful Arrests: An Overview of Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 and Its Recent Amendments, 15(2) Potchefstroom Electronic L. J. 346, 347 (2012), available at http://www.saflii.org/za/journals/PER/2012/26.pdf

[39] The Economist, supra note 37.

[40] Alex Duval Smith, Six Police Held for Dog Attacks on Black Prisoners, The Independent (Nov. 9, 2000), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/six-police-held-for-dog-attacks-on-black-prisoners-622773.html; Judge Detains Suspects in Taped Attack, Los Angeles Times (Nov. 10, 2000), http://articles.latimes.com/2000/ nov/10/news/mn-49905

[41] Ann M. Simmons, 4 S. African Officers in Dog Attack Sentenced, Los Angeles Times (Nov. 30, 2001), http://articles.latimes.com/2001/nov/30/news/mn-9920

[42] South African Police Ordered Enough Mortuary Vans to Carry 32 Bodies Hours Before Shooting Dead 34 Striking Miners, Inquiry Hears, Mail Online (Nov. 25, 2013), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2513189/Marikana-miners-strike-South-African-police-ordered-vans-carry-32-bodies-shooting-34.html; Alex Crawford, Marikana Massacre: ‘Damning’ Evidence Emerges, Sky News (Oct. 24, 2013), http://news.sky.com/ story/1158899/marikana-massacre-damning-evidence-emerges; Massacre in South Africa: Police Defend Killing of 34 Striking Workers at Platinum Mine, Democracy Now (Aug. 21, 2012), http://www.democracynow. org/2012/8/21/massacre_in_south_africa_police_defend.

[43] Haroon Siddique, South African Police Suspended over Death of Man ‘Dragged Behind Van,’ The Guardian (Mar. 1, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/28/man-dies-south-africa-police-van; Police Charged with Murder in Dragged Man Case, USA Today (Mar. 1, 2013), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/ 2013/03/01/south-africa-police-officers/1955997/

[44] WC Police Filmed Beating Naked Man, SA Breaking News (Mar. 7, 2014), http://www.sabreakingnews. co.za/2014/03/07/wc-police-filmed-beating-naked-man/

[45] Cop Fired for Assaulting Naked Man, City Press (May 15, 2014), http://www.citypress.