When can the police use force against protesters?

During any policing operation, ongoing negotiations must take place between police officers and conveners or other leadership elements of a protest to resolve issues before they escalate (Instruction 13(2) of National Instruction 4 of 2014).”

In terms of SAPS National Instruction 4 of 2014, “the use of force by the police must be avoided at all costs and members of the police must display the highest degree of tolerance” to protesters and communities. However, in extreme circumstances, the police may use the minimum force necessary to disperse a protest if there is an imminent threat to life or property.

Q: What is a National Instruction?

A: National Instructions, formerly Standing Orders, are issued by the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service and instruct police officers on how to perform their various duties.

The police must first issue two verbal warnings

If negotiations between protesters and the police fail and life or property is in danger, the police must:

  1. Warn protesters in at least two official languages that they must disperse. The warning must be audible and should allow protesters enough time to disperse peacefully.
  2. Give a second warning in at least two official languages, and, if possible, in the language most commonly spoken in the area, that protesters must disperse. The second warning must give protesters and innocent bystanders enough time to leave the area.

If the use of force is unavoidable?

If, following the warnings, protesters have not dispersed and the use of force in unavoidable:

  1. The police must attempt to de-escalate conflict and use the minimum force necessary.
  2. The degree of force used must be proportional to the seriousness of the situation and the threat posed in terms of situational appropriateness.
  3. Any use of force must be reasonable in the circumstances.
  4. The use of force must be discontinued immediately once the objective of the force has been achieved.
  5. If protesters are going to be dispersed, the police must make sure that protesters have enough escape routes in order to try and avoid serious injuries or possible deaths as a result of a stampede.
  6. If dispersion is unavoidable, an attempt must be made to disperse protesters in the direction of a positive attraction point (an area where participants would most likely be willing to move to).
  7. The use of force must be gradual, beginning with the least violent tactics or weapons available.

What weapons can the police use to disperse protesters, and when?

Crowd-control weapons (CCWs) should only be used in exceptional circumstances where there is an imminent threat to life or property and the use of force is unavoidable.

The use of the following CCWs are strictly prohibited or restricted when policing protests:

  1. Firearms and sharp (live) ammunition, including birdshot (fine lead pellets) and buckshot (small lead pellets).
  2. Pepper spray (or capsicum), unless the relevant commander has issued a specific instruction for use. (Pepper spray may not be used in confined spaces or in stadia where it could lead to a stampede.)
  3. Teargas (CS) may be used only by trained police officers on the command of the operational commander in situations that allow for its use. (Teargas may not be used in confined spaces or in stadia where it could lead to a stampede.)

Approved rubber bullets may only be used to disperse a protest in extreme circumstances, if less forceful methods have proven ineffective. All other CCWs (such as water cannons and crowd management trained equestrian units) may only be used on the command of the operational commander.



See instructions 13 and 14 of National Instruction 4 of 2014 for further information or contact the LRC.

Please note that the above overview does not constitute legal advice. Please consult the Terms and Conditions for the use of Protest Info.