From rubber bullets to stun grenades – The weapons used against South African protesters

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has an array of weapons which help to control crowds when protests turn violent.

While the right to protest is protected by South Africa’s Constitution, these events can often get out of hand and threaten the safety of bystanders and participants.

In these cases, South African police may use riot control weapons and tactics to disperse crowds in a non-lethal manner.

These can include everything from rubber bullets and stun grenades to pepper spray and tear gas, and are usually aimed at forcing crowds to disperse without harming any protestors.

The philosophy behind riot control is to calm down crowds and encourage them to disband, with violence only being used as a last resort.

Protests can occasionally break the ground rules set out by police or infringe on the security of the area, which would warrant intervention by police officers.

Like any other police force in the world, the SAPS occasionally intervene and clash with protesters, using weapons such as rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas, and stun grenades to control crowds, limit damage to infrastructure, and protect other citizens and businesses.

MyBroadband spoke to South African Gunowners’ Association (SAGA) president John Welch to learn more about the weapons used by South African police when responding to violent protests.


Rubber bullets

Rubber bullets or balls are made from hard-rubber compounds or silicone and measure 20mm in diameter. One or two are placed in a shell which is launched from a pump-action shotgun at about 400 feet per second.

Larger ones (37mm or 40mm) can be discharged from single-shot “grenade” launchers, although these are normally only used to launch tear gas, pepper powder, or less-lethal shock grenades.

Both rubber and silicone balls will hit you with enough force to cause a bruise or contusion if fired from the recommended 20m, Welch noted.

“The flight of the balls may be very erratic, especially in the two-ball variety, and at 30m the chances are that one ball may hit your target while the other ball misses or hits someone else,” he said.

“The police officers also need to be careful when discharging such rubber-shot since they may bounce back and hit friendly forces should they strike a wall or rocks.”

“Your typical scenario where rubber balls will be used is where the police have issued warnings and even used water cannon, pepper powder, CS gas (tear-gas), or stun grenades with little or no effect,” Welch explained.

Should the perpetrators continue to cause a threat, which must be evaluated (carefully but quickly) by the officer in charge, they may give the instruction to discharge rubber balls with shotguns.


Stun grenades

Stun grenades are metal cylinders with holes in the side. They contain a small amount of explosive material that will cause a loud bang or double-bang when detonated.

“The explosion itself is contained and thus, unlike in the case of a fragmentation grenade, will not explode outward. The energy itself is released through the holes in the side of the cylinder,” Welch explained.

The bangs are loud, measuring in the region of 140 decibels and are intended to disorientate or disperse crowds without causing serious damage.

“One must carefully understand the deployment, since people soon realise that they cause no damage thus they do not disperse. This then may lead to the use of further force, which one actually wants to avert,” Welch explained.

It is possible that if the explosion occurs immediately next to your ear it may cause permanent damage – it is like a rifle being discharged immediately next to your ear. The bang possibly is loud enough to damage an eardrum, although it is hardly likely.”


Tear gas

Tear gas or CS gas is a lachrymator that causes great irritation and watery eyes. The irritation disorients people, making it easier for the police to arrest them.

It is typically dispersed from an aerosol canister that can be thrown by an official or launched by a 37mm or 40mm M76 grenade launcher, Welch said.

“The gas contains a chemical substance that irritates the eyes and all places where a person has sweat or is wet.”

“Permanent damage to eyes is somewhat doubtful, although for people with very sensitive eyes, I shall not rule it out,” Welch noted.

“Although it is a very effective way to disperse a crowd, it is seldom used since the gas is extremely wind-sensitive, which could cause friendly forces to suffer too.”

Welch said there has been a move away from CS gas, although it may still be used.

He explained that teargas is prohibited for common use by the Teargas Act of 1964 and only the military and police may still be using it.

“In the past, the Minister of Justice could authorise private security companies to use it but currently, pepper powder or spray is very effective and you do not require anyone’s permission to possess it,” Welch said.

Tear gas in France


Water cannons

As the name suggests, water cannons blow water or water-based solutions in a single direction.

The water may in certain cases be mixed with pepper powder for greater effect, or colourant could be added to help with the identification of perpetrators in the short term.

Water cannons are typically mounted on soft-armoured vehicles which hold police officers and the tanks that store the liquid.

“The vehicle must be powerful enough to carry the water tanks, bearing in mind that the weight of the water and that half-empty water tanks, when shaking, cause serious instability,” Welch said.

The cannon “shoots” the liquid in a single stream at a pressure of 10 bar, although this level largely depends on the manufacturer and required specifications.

“I have seen real-life use of water cannons in France, America, and South Africa. In the former two countries, the flow of water is powerful enough to force you backwards, depending on where exactly the stream hits you,” Welch noted.

“If you hit the person with a stream of water fairly low on the torso it may lift him and through him backwards.”

However, Welch said the idea and intention should never be to injure people but to deter them from breaching a certain perimeter or area.

“It may also serve as a diversion for the arresting officers to get close to the perpetrators, who might, at that time, be temporarily disorientated,” he explained.


Sonic weapons

A more modern weapon that has been employed in the United States is the long-range acoustic device (LRAD) which transmits sound waves that irritate human ears and usually cause such discomfort that people cannot continue with their activity.

LRADs employed as anti-protest equipment produce sound waves at around 80Hz.

While there is no confirmed use of the devices in South Africa, they were previously spotted on police vehicles during the height of the “Fees Must Fall” protests in 2015.

This was after a report had surfaced that SAPS had made a request to parliament’s portfolio committee for the funding of one fixed and 11 portable acoustic devices.

Welch noted these devices have a limited range and will probably not cause permanent damage to the ears unless a person has a serious ear disease or extremely sensitive ears.


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From rubber bullets to stun grenades – The weapons used against South African protesters