"Die Soldaat in my" - We were soldiers

In the 1960s the SAP established Divisional Anti-Riot Units throughout South Africa. This involved members of the SAP doing part-time training and being mobilised into platoons to deal with unrest when necessary. Each Division was more-or-less left to its own methods of crowd control, based on local conditions and knowledge. Equipment was supplied, on demand, by the SAP's central quartermaster. Riot control procedures became part of the police counter-insurgency training program at Maleoskop. The Divisional Units were phased out at the end of the decade due to competing demands for manpower for the police counter-insurgency operations in (then) South West Africa and Rhodesia. From 1974, young white conscripts were posted to the police as well as to the Defense Force, to assist in addressing these manpower demands.

In the months leading up to the protests of June 1976, a reorganisation of riot policing began within the SAP. This was based on research that the SAP conducted in the US, Western Europe, Britain and Rhodesia; which, at that time, all maintained militarised approaches to public order policing. The SAP established 18 full-time (specialised) riot units and began to train officers in a new approach to the policing of crowds. The approach which they adopted was a colonial one, based largely on public order policing styles in England, Northern Ireland and Rhodesia. By the time the June uprising began, very few members of the SAP had been trained in riot control. Even when the new riot units were fully manned and trained in the latter part of the 1970s, they were not capable of dealing with large-scale demonstrations, but could be used as strike- and boycott-breakers, road blockers and shock troops for Security Branch raids in the townships.

According to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Executive Summary - 29 October, in 1975, the SAP established an elite anti-terrorist unit known as Unit 19 or a Special Task Force. It went by many names at the time, including Divisional Reaction Unit. It played an important role in the training of the police Riot Units established at more or less the same time. Based in several centres around the country, its recruits were drawn largely from those with counter-insurgency training. 

Forty Units, with over 7000 members, were operating throughout South Africa by 1994. One of the largest of these (with 1200 members) was "Unit 19", the special national unit which was based in Pretoria for rapid deployment to unrest focal points anywhere in the country. The remaining units were spread across the country, but concentrated around flash points for unrest in the PWV, Natal, Western and Eastern Cape. An additional thirty-seven similar units had been established in the various homeland police forces.

Based in Pretoria and deployed countrywide the function of unit 19 was to combat riots nationwide in hotspots and they were deployed to do border duties. Recruits were posted for a minimum "contract period" of 2 years after which most opted to be re posted elsewhere. Casualties suffered were direct i.e. through direct armed contact with opposition forces and indirect i.e. through accidents, suicide or attempted suicide. The indirect injuries and/or casualties were disproportionately high compared to any other unit in the SAP at the time. It has been suggested that the primary causes for the phenomenon can be attributed to the highly stressful environments members were exposed to, poor living conditions, very long working hours and constant threat of immediate violence directed at them during deployment periods. Alcohol abuse was not uncommon among most members. After 1994 the unit was disbanded.

A study was undertaken with 55 members of the South African Police (SAP) to establish whether the situations under which they work, continuous and current, as opposed to prior, traumatic exposure, would result in a particular type of traumatic symptom constellation. The results indicated that the traumatic stressor of witnessing a traumatic event was predictive of the symptoms of intrusion. However, symptoms of intrusion were correlated with symptoms of avoidance, suggesting that avoidance may be a defensive response to intrusive phenomena which are a direct effect of exposure to violence. Various hypotheses were suggested to explain this phenomenon, focusing on the need for denial within a macho police culture and the particular features of the South African scenario


Copyright Unit19 - 2013