A few years ago when Helen Zille was the MEC for Education in the Western Cape she stripped her moer when, after trying to summon the cops about a break in at a local school, she burst into the nearest charge office only to find the boys and girls in blue munching chicken and watching TV soapies while the phone rang off the hook.
Granted, not all policemen and women are that slack or lazy but there is a fair share of recruits in the force who give you that lights-on but-no-one-home look when you pop in to report a cash-in transit heist, a flasher in the shrubbery or a family suicide.
Then last year, before SANDF soldiers went on the rampage and stormed the Union Buildings, I heard a clip on a radio news bulletin. Soldiers were striking for higher pay and someone who was interviewed told the journalist “we’re going the make the country ungovernable.”
I stared at the radio set, wide-eyed with shock.
“Wow,” I thought to myself “that’s treason. The man’s threatening to rebel against a democratically elected government and render the country ungovernable. I’m sure Minister Lekota (who was the Minister of Defense at the time) will make an urgent announcement soon”.
But there was a deafening silence.
I tuned in the next day eager for a follow-up.
Nada. No one was arrested or taken to task for threatening the security of the Republic of South Africa.
Then I reckoned that it might be a deliberate strategy, a sort of “ignore it and it will go away” thing, a bit like former president Mbeki’s attitude to HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe.
It did go away but late August, denial burst its banks when a little feral battalion of about 500 soldiers stormed the seat of government in Pretoria. There were gunshots, police were deployed, people were hurt, some arrested. Ugly scenes were broadcast on the evening news.
Of course the new Minister of Defense, Lindiwe Sisulu, despite her Chanel suits and stilettos is not to be toyed with. She wants the rebels, some of whom we have to admit earn appalling wages, to be dismissed. You can’t allow men with weapons to hold the state hostage she says.
But I think actually it is a blessing that the soldiers (and members of the police service) belong to a union. The Congress of South African Trade Unions has backed the 460 odd soldiers who participated in the protest action and prefers to call them “SANDF workers” rather than soldiers.
What this does, of course, is render the “work” that soldiers do merely a job. And employees or civil servants who view their employment this way – as a job - are often unlikely to put great effort into defending anyone except their own position no matter how badly it pays. When push comes to shove they won’t be dying or killing for President Zuma.
So, unlike the armies of Zimbawe or the DRC for example, it is doubtful that our soldiers would ever be able to stage a successful coup. Getting members of the SAPS to do their jobs is difficult at the best of times; can you imagine some hothead politician trying to get them rough and ready for a civil war?
Our Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, recently had a brush with this type of lean and mean renegade army that thrives in so many conflict-ridden African countries when his plane apparently ran out of fuel somewhere over the DRC.
For now, I think we should be grateful for our often overweight, unambitious, rank-and-file members of the security forces. All they want is a decently paid job with the usual perks and holidays.