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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Policing of Public Gatherings and Demonstrations in South Africa 1960-1994

by Janine Rauch & David Storey

This paper was commissioned by the Truth Commission Research Unit, which provided financial support for the research and preparation, May 1998.

Janine Rauch is a former Consultant at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

David Storey is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


The creation of a specialised riot control function within South Africa's policing agencies was essentially a reaction to the disorder and political unrest associated with resistance to apartheid. Although the name and structures of the units tasked with this specialist function changed a number of times during the three decades under examination, and the functions were devolved to the various other policing agencies in homeland and self-governing territories, their essential roles remained the same - the enforcement of apartheid laws, the suppression of political protest and the prevention of 'unrest, intimidation and unrest-related crimes'.

Since the nature of their task was inherently public, the police units tasked with riot control played a prominent role as frontline 'enforcers' of apartheid policies, and were viewed with a mixture of fear and loathing by the communities in which they served. Although accurate figures are not available, it is likely that the riot control (and similar) units were responsible for a majority of police killings during the apartheid years.

The units were para-military in nature (by way of training, operational understanding and culture), and brutal in the enforcement of bans on political protest. They operated within a policy paradigm that accepted and supported the lethal use of force. This, combined with the authorities' complete intolerance of protest action, meant that they frequently used maximum force. As the external environment in which they operated took on the character of a low-intensity civil war, their training, equipment and methodology became increasingly militarised.

The South African police agencies were isolated from the international advances that were being made in the field of public order, and were unaware of the new strategies and techniques that other police services were implementing.

By the late 1980s, their policing of areas where violence had become endemic attracted great controversy and numerous allegations of bias and brutality. This reputation, and their inability to fully adjust to the demands of the new political environment, led to calls from numerous communities and political movements for the total disbandment of the riot police or Internal Stability Units under a new policing dispensation.

In 1994 the Government of National Unity inherited a riot control capacity of approximately seventy two (72) units which were illegitimate, over-centralised, fragmented (into SAP and homeland forces), unaccountable, incident driven, and ill-equipped and not trained for the public order challenges which would face them during South Africa's transition to democracy.

Historical Conceptions of Crowd Control

Chronology of Major Incidents

The period under investigation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is framed, at each end, by events involving the policing of crowds - the march and subsequent police shootings at Sharpeville in 1960, and the inauguration of President Mandela in 1994. A juxtaposition of these two events symbolises the changing demands on the police in respect of gatherings, and the shifts in police methods for managing crowds in South Africa.

Between them, thousands of incidents of public disorder took place; of which, symbolically, the most significant have been the occasional mass killings by police, which act as period markers in the history of South African state violence.

Ø. Vaal Triangle 1984 - The South African Catholic Bishops Conference estimated that 142 people were killed as a result of police action during four months of township "disturbances". These "disturbances" revolved around the UDF campaign against the tricameral constitution, and involved rent boycotts, schools boycotts & strikes. The state's response to the uprising was a joint army and police operation titled "Operation Palmiet".

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