THE South African Police, used for decades as a paramilitary force to suppress resistance to apartheid, has been plunged into inward turmoil by political tensions that threaten the stability of the country at a crucial period in its transition to democracy.
Ironically, the crisis within the police force has come to a head just when major reforms, which have been devised in consultation with the African National Congress (ANC) and other political groups, are being implemented in districts throughout the country.
The reforms, which are expected to take up to six years to implement, include a nationwide system of community policing that will seek to build black confidence in the national force, and a reeducation program to eliminate deep-seated racial attitudes within the force. The plan also calls for bringing to an end the overlapping functions of the Police and Defense Forces, and the hiring of more black policemen.
Despite residual hostility toward the police force among blacks, the ANC and its militant Youth League are actively cooperating in the reform initiative. Some 78 consultative committees - made up jointly of the police and the black community - have been established.
But an internal power struggle, reflecting the divisions in the broader society between those who support and oppose the democratic process, has erupted in recent weeks, threatening to tear the force apart.
``The threat which this poses to law and order in the country must not be underestimated,'' said Lt. Gen. Bob Rogers, defense spokesman for the liberal Democratic Party.
A series of incidents has brought tensions to a head:
r About 375 striking policemen, all nonwhites, in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth were dismissed (Oct.19) after being partially disarmed by members of the Internal Stability Unit, an anti-riot squad that black leaders have demanded should be withdrawn from the townships. Police authorities have succeeded in recovering only a small proportion of the dismissed policemen's arms.
r In Soweto township outside Johannesburg, Winnie Mandela, the militant estranged wife of ANC President Nelson Mandela, jointly led a protest march by striking police marching side-by-side with uniformed members of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and the ultramilitant Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), which is still waging a campaign of violence against white rule.
r Gregory Rockman, the former police lieutenant who now heads the Police and Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), warned that any attempt by the government to crack down on the union would spark a civil war. POPCRU, which is not recognized by the authorities, threatens a strike by its 15,000 mostly black members.
r Police headquarters announced Oct.15 that 700 policemen were put on early retirement last year because of stress-related disorders caused by overwhelming pressures on policemen.
During the past few years, policemen have become a prime assassination target for township radicals. Policemen are being killed at a rate of one a day.
``The legacy of apartheid has distorted and destroyed the image of the force,'' said ANC executive member Matthew Phosa, who addressed a top police management seminar in Pretoria on Oct. 26. ``It is the institution most marked and damaged by apartheid because it was in the forefront of enforcing apartheid.''
Police Ministry officials have described the crisis as one of the worst in the history of the force and have accused POPCRU of going out of its way to polarize and politicize the force.
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel, whose resignation has been demanded on several occasions by the ANC, is adamant that the government will never concede policemen the right to strike, but he appears to be considering the recognition of POPCRU.
Senior police officers have toned down their political rhetoric and appear to be concentrating their efforts on negotiations aimed at reconciliation with the pro-ANC members.
The ANC has backed POPCRU's immediate demands for the reinstatement of the dismissed police, the withdrawal of the Internal Stability Unit from the townships, and the recognition of the union.
But ANC leaders are quietly trying to calm passions in police ranks, mindful that it could erupt at any time into an all-out confrontation between pro- and anti-ANC forces.
POPCRU leader Rockman insists that the union is bent on bringing black and white policemen together and supporting the policy of community policing in the country's black townships.
The groundswell of support for POPCRU presents Police Commissioner Maj. Gen. Johan van der Merwe with a serious dilemma regarding the strict rule that members of the force may not display allegiance to a political party. POPCRU is a thinly disguised mantle for the political allegience of pro-ANC policemen.
Officers worry there could be a violent counter-reaction from right-wing members of the force that could tear the force apart just when it is most needed in the run-up to the April 27 elections.