Special Task Force (SAPS)
|South African Police Service Special Task Force|
Security simulation at Air Force Base Swartkop
|Active||1976 – present|
|Branch||South African Police Service|
|Role||Domestic Counterterrorism and Law Enforcement|
|Size||~ 90 operators|
|Part of||Under control of Division Operational Response Services|
|Stationed in||Pretoria, Durban or Cape Town|
The STF has a formidable reputation in counterterrorism and insurgency and hostage rescue. Unlike most civilian/police counter-terrorist units around the world, the special task force is also trained to conduct military special operations and has done so on many occasions, operating with their military counterparts, especially during the long 30-year border war.
In 1967 about 2000 members of the South African Police were deployed to guard the northern border of Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) to assist Rhodesian security forces in maintaining law and order in the country as guerilla attacks became more frequent during the Rhodesian Bush War. These police members proved to be ill-equipped and ineffective at dealing with guerilla warfare and terrorism. As a result of these events the Security Branch of the Police began to envision a special police unit to deal with high-risk situations such as hostage situations. Captain J.J. de Swardt of the Security Branch of the Police as well as Sergeant Roelf de Plooy (a counter insurgency (COIN) instructor), both veterans of the deployments in Rhodesia against Zimbabwe African National Union rebels, began a grass roots attempt to form a group of police representatives with a shared vision of formalising a police-based special forces unit. They began to train candidate police officers in survival and bush skills to execute high-risk COIN operations and drastically reduce friendly fatalities.
After the infamous Munich massacre 5 September 1972 where members from the Israeli Olympic Team were taken hostage and murdered by the terrorist group Black September, countries around the world saw the need to establish specialised police units to deal with high-risk situations such as hostage release rescues. The senior staff of the South African Police chose not to create one of these units as a similar situation did not seem likely at the time in South Africa. Captain J.J. de Swardt and Sergeant Roelf de Plooy however continued to train an informal team of police officers after hours and over weekends and determination grew over time among these members.
The members of this ragtag group were required to join the South African Police shooting club in order to acquire R1 assault rifles. Camouflage uniforms were also unofficially acquired. Because this group, who had taken on the name of 'Bliksems', was an unofficial group within the Police Force, the normal training facilities were not accessible, however a vacant area near the Baviaanspoort Correctional Services that could be used for live hand gun and assault rifle fire and which also had an urban environment with rural terrain was eventually found by Col. van der Merwe. Capt. J.J. de Swardt then proceeded to hire instructors from Hunter Group of the South African Defence Force(SADF) such as martial arts specialist, Joe Grant Grierson. Training was based around weapons handling, rural patrol formations and tactics, ambushes and skirmishes and was based on military protocol. Rock climbing, rope access, rescue work, skydiving and parachute training also occurred later on. Other instructors of the team were Bill du Toit (an ex-special forces soldier) who specialised in terror tactics, Mr K. Lucy who was an expert in rope work and abseiling, Mr T. Segala who had an extensive knowledge of booby traps and Improvised explosive devices, Gary Magnusson and Hannes Smit who were experienced civilian skydivers and Major Jakkals de Jager who was a paratrooper in the SADF.
In 1973 during the South African Games the Israeli government stated that it would send their team but only on the sole condition that their security will be guaranteed. Gen. Mike Geldenhuys, who was the head of the South African Police Security Branch at the time, arranged for Capt. de Swardt and his 'Bliksems' to provide security for the foreign team. For this the South African Police received much praise and attention from the international press as well as a commendation from the South African Secretary for Foreign Affairs which solidified the idea of a police special forces unit. On 28 April 1975, however, a hostage siege occurred at the Israeli embassy and the Police (lacking an official counter terrorist force) could not resolve the situation. This became known as the Fox Street Siege. In 1975 the counter insurgency conflict in South-West Africa (now named Namibia) also broke out and police and military manpower was now stretched between two COIN campaigns. The South African Police was forced to withdraw from the South-West African border as well as from Rhodesia and earned the Battle Honour Rhodesia.
In 1975 the Bureau of State Security supported the creation of the unit and on 6 June 1975, Brigadier Vic Verster wrote an official recommendation from the South African Police Security Branch to the Commissioner of the South African Police and proposed the structure, command and control plans for the Special Task Force. Then finally on 1 February 1976 Lt. Gen. Mike Geldenhuys officially authorised the creation of the Special Task Force. Col. Dries Verwey was appointed as the first commanding officer (CO) of the Special Task Force and Capt. J.J. de Swardt and the core group of the 'Bliksems' were transferred to the Special Task Force as instructors. During the first phase of selection the unit received 113 applications, yet only 38 were accepted including 4 reserve members including one medic.
After Gen. Mike Geldenhuys was appointed as the Commissioner of the South African Police in 1978, he transferred command and control of the Special Task Force from the Security Branch of the SAP over to Counter Insurgency (COIN) under the command of Major General Vic Verster. The divisional commander was Colonel Bert Wandrag with operational command under Major JJ de Swardt.
- To resolve high risk situations which cannot be dealt with efficiently by ordinary members of the South African Police Service.
- To resolve hostage situations on land (buses, trains and buildings such as national key points and embassies), sea (oil platforms, ships in harbors and own territorial waters) and air (civilian local and international aircraft).
- To combat urban and rural terror.
- To provide assistance to other divisions of the SAPS, which require the specialized skills, techniques and equipment of the unit, such as Murder and Robbery, Motor Vehicle Theft, etc.
- To provide assistance to units responsible for the protection of high-profile VIP’s, as well as the periodic unassisted protection of high-profile VIP’s where the skills required, fall beyond the capabilities of available VIP units, such as the provision of snipers for counter-sniper measures.
- To provide a specialized rescue service, and assistance during natural disasters that require high proficiency in mountaineering, emergency diving and other rescue operations.
- To provide a specialized operational, tactical and continuation training to all members of the Special Task Force to enable the unit to perform the primary and secondary functions of the unit.
- To provide a specialized policing service to neighbouring countries’ police, in accordance with agreements reached between the South African government and the countries involved.
- The consultation on and the provision of specialized training to other South African Police Service divisions and other approved organizations.
- The evaluation of specialized equipment.
- The execution of any other duties that fall within the scope of high risk operations, assigned by the Minister for Safety and Security and the National Commissioner of the SAPS or the Divisional Commissioner, Crime Prevention and Response Services.
- Wearable Night vision Goggles
- Satellite Phones
- ISS TiV Thermal Binoculars (Infrared vision)
- Prism 200 Wall Radar - 2D/3D Short-range radar imaging equipment that allows STF operators to analyse situations behind walls, for example during hostage situations.
- EMT Drone - A micro VTOL Unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) - used for observation or reconnaissance during operations.
- Rural Battle Jacket, Chest Webbing, Urban Battle Jacket and Body Armour - Different types of Battledress, Webbing equipment and Personal Armor are used for different types of missions.
- Breaching Equipment and Explosive Ordnance Disposal equipment.
- Fast Rope, Full Body Harness/ normal harness and Tactical Rope Bag are used during Air assault type operations.
- Casspir Armoured Personnel Carrier - A mine-protected armoured vehicle that can carry a crew of two, including 12 additional operators and their associated gear.
- RG-12 Armoured Personnel Carrier - a 4x4 multi-purpose public order vehicle with anti-personnel mine, grenade, fire bomb and small arms fire protection.
- RG-31 Nyala - 4×4 multi-purpose mine-resistant ambush protected infantry mobility vehicle.
- Atlas Oryx, MBB Bo 105 and other helicopters have been used in the past as insertion vehicles of the STF
25 January 1980 – The Siege of Volkskas Bank, Silverton, Pretoria. Four terrorists, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades, held the Volkskas Bank in Silverton, Pretoria under siege. They threatened to kill the hostages if all their demands were not met. In the ensuing release operation, Special Task Force members killed all the terrorists, while hostage casualties were caused by hostile small-arms fire and a hand grenade explosion.
25 – 30 January 1981 – Laingsburg flood disaster. The Special Task Force lead the search – and rescue operations. 47 bodies were recovered in 5 days. The Special Task Force also rendered disaster relief assistance to the local population.
30 July 1988 – Hostage situation- Goedemoed prison. Using sharpened objects, 22 prisoners attacked the prison warders at Goedemoed Prison. One of the warders failed to escape and was taken hostage in a cell. The hostage was stabbed twice in the neck while one of the warders was trying to negotiate with the prisoners. The SAPS Special Task Force was called in to assist in the matter. Nine members of the Special Task Force were flown to Goedemoed Prison. The Special Task Force freed the hostage with the assistance of the negotiator (warder) and the Reaction Unit of Bloemfontein. The two prisoners who held the warder hostage, were wounded, one of them fatally.
14 September 1988 – The Bus Capture at Lesotho. The Pope visited Maseru on the above date. Four members of the Lesotho Freedom Alliance hijacked a bus transporting 74 passengers at the British Embassy. The SAPS Special Task Force was called in to assist in the matter. When negotiations failed, the terrorists began shooting at the bystanders in the British Consulate. They then attempted to use the bus to ram through the embassy gates. The Special Task Force stormed the bus, killing three terrorists and capturing one. They disarmed an improvised booby trap (explosive device). 17 hostages who were injured by hostile gunfire were stabilised by Special Task Force medics.
13 December 1989 – Body recovery at Selby Mine, Johannesburg. Two members of the Special Task Force assisted the Brixton Murder and Robbery Unit in recovering a corpse from the Selby mineshaft, Johannesburg. The corpse was found at a depth of 141 meters. Obstructions, bad construction and the threat of toxic gases created additional hazards. Two members of the Special Task Force were individually lowered into the shaft, but were forced to return to the surface owing to respiratory difficulties. One member was given oxygen apparatus and lowered down the shaft again. After securing the corpse to a rope, he was hoisted to the surface. Both members were awarded the South African Police Cross for Bravery for their unselfish deed.
11 January 1993 – Hostage situation in Walmer, Port Elizabeth. An ex-defence force member took a woman hostage and held her at gunpoint. As negotiations failed, the Special Task Force entered the building and incapacitated the captor with 2 shots. The hostage was not hurt.
4 July 1993 – Hijacked Fokker F-28 at Jan Smuts International Airport. A Fokker F-28 airliner of Royal Swazi Airlines with 21 passengers on board was hijacked and diverted to Jan Smuts Airport, near Johannesburg. The SAPS Special Task Force was summoned to the scene and 22 members were dispatched to the airport to contain the situation and release the hostages. After being informed by the psychologist on the scene that the hijacker was emotionally unstable and irrational and a threat to the hostages, the Special Task Force was given the command to recapture the aircraft and to release the hostages. The hijacker was wounded in the head during the storming of the aircraft. A hostage was wounded in the shoulder and the pilot in the leg. No casualties were sustained by members of the Special Task Force.
10 July 1994 – Arrest of Weapon Smugglers at Nduma. Weapons are regularly smuggled from Mozambique to South Africa via the Kruger National Park which borders on Mozambique. The Organized Crime Unit and Firearm Tracing Unit requested the Special Task Force to be of assistance by way of observation duties of specified areas which had been identified by informers as areas which the smugglers readily use. 10 members of the Special Task Force were deployed to the Nduma area in the Kruger National Park where they established observation posts. The operation was successful and three (3) Mozambicans were traced and arrested. The members seized 30 AK-47 rifles and three (3) SAM-7 ground-to-air missiles.
27 October 1994 – Hostage Situation and Attempted Suicide at Telkom Offices, Pretoria. A man armed with a firearm and was upset about the non-payment of his salary, entered the Telkom Distribution offices where he worked and took a number of people hostage. The hostage negotiators and 21 members of the Special Task Force were deployed to the scene. After prolonged negotiations, all the hostages were released but the man refused to surrender and threatened to take his own life. The Special Task Force were still in position and ready to take action while the negotiations with the man continued. While the negotiations were taking place, the man decided, without warning, to move to another office. The man was overwhelmed in the passage after his attention had been drawn by a stun grenade and he was disarmed. Neither the man or the people who disarmed him were injured in the incident.
15 June 1994 – Rescue Operation Salu Building, Pretoria. 28 members of the Special Task Force raced to the city center to assist with a rescue operation. A building with a number of floors was on fire and personnel working in the building above the floors which were on fire, were trapped. Members of the Special Task Force, SAPS Air Wing and SA Air Force using helicopters rescued people from the top of the building. Other members used roping equipment to evacuate the trapped people to safety. Only a small number of people were treated for minor burns and smoke inhalation.
1 March 1995 – Hostage Situation Bella Vista, Johannesburg. A man took his fiancee and her little daughter hostage after a family dispute. The hostage negotiators and six members of the Special Task Force were deployed to the scene. During negotiations, the man continually held a knife against the throat of his fiancee and also sodomised her in the presence of her daughter. The child was also ill-treated by the man while his fiancee had to watch. A tactical release of the hostages was the only way out. One member of the Special Task Force was employed as a sniper and during the tactical release of the hostages, the man was fatally wounded. A firearm was found in the room where the man had held the woman and child hostage.
27 November 1995 – Kidnapping and Hostage Situation, Vereeniging. The Intelligence Service and CID of Secunda and Vereeniging requested the assistance of the Special Task Force in an operation to locate the whereabouts of a man who had been kidnapped and was being held hostage. Information at hand was that the man had been kidnapped by 3 men and was being held hostage in a Daleside, Vereenigng house. 9 members of the Special Task Force were made available for the operation and the kidnapped man was released uninjured during a tactical release. All three men were arrested without a single shot being fired. 5 fire-arms which had been used by the hostage takers were seized.
6 August 1995 – Hostage Situation Hollywood Café, Sunnyside. A man fleeing from the SAPS on 6 August 1995, took a woman hostage in the Hollywood Café, Esselen Street, Sunnyside. The Special Task Force was summoned to the scene by Radio Control after which the hostage taker was arrested and the hostage tactically released. The man was found guilty of armed robbery, kidnapping, pointing of a firearm and possession of an unlicensed firearm.
24 to 25 February 1995 – Hostage Situation, St Albans Prison – Port Elizabeth. 22 members of the Special Task Force were summoned to St Alban's Prison, Port Elizabeth where approximately 105 prisoners had taken a prison warder as hostage. During the night of 24 – 25 February 1995, after prolonged negotiations the prison warder was released after a tactical release lasting 20 seconds. One hostage taker was fatally wounded. One injured and the other prisoners were arrested. The hostage was released without injuries. Two firearms and a M26 hand grenade were seized after the operation.
12 August 1996 – Hostage Situation 34 Baccus Street, Irene. On 12 August 1996 a man took a year old baby hostage at 34 Baccus Street, Irene. The Special Task Force deployed 21 members to the scene. During negotiations, snipers were deployed in the vicinity. The snipers observed that the man held the baby in front of him with a knife to its throat all the time. The hostage taker only moved a curtain occasionally to see what was going on outside, but never let go of the baby. Negotiations which had lasted a long time did not succeed and it was decided on a tactical release of the baby by members of the Special Task Force. During the tactical release, both snipers fired simultaneously, fatally wounding the hostage taker. The baby was safely released without any injuries.
22 May 1997 – Hostage Situation Nando's, Johannesburg. Three robbers trying to rob Nando's on the corner of Cromhout and Kimberley Streets, Johannesburg were cornered by members of the SAPS Johannesburg after being alerted by members of the public. The robbers took the employees of Nando's hostage. A gun-battle between the robbers and the SAPS took place during which two members of the SAPS were wounded. 19 members of the Special Task Force were deployed. During the release of the hostages, the three robbers were wounded and arrested. No members of the public were injured.
25 June 2006 – The Jeppestown Massacre, Jeppestown, central Johannesburg. After a robbery, 23 robbers were followed by a police helicopter to a safe house. 4 SAPS members were murdered and 8 robbers were killed in the siege before the remaining 15 gang members surrendered. Members of the Special Task Force were deployed to assist the SAPS in ending the siege.
15 December 2009 - Special Task Force snipers ended a 20-hour-long hostage situation at a farm outside Petrusburg in the Free State when two armed attackers took a farmer hostage when he and his son-in-law confronted them, after they had robbed another farmer. Thereafter the attackers hijacked the farmers' vehicle. His son-in-law managed to escape by diving out of the moving vehicle. Police chased after the vehicle at about 14:00, but the hijackers refused to hand themselves over and negotiations were carried out by the police hostage negotiator at about 16:00. The Special Task Force arrived on the scene between 17:00 and 18:00. At about 7:00 Special Task Force snipers shot and killed both attackers. The hostage only had minor injuries and was taken to the hospital.
10 August – 20 September 2012 – Marikana Miners' Strike, Rustenburg. Members of the Special Task Force were deployed to the Lonmin owned mine in the Marikana area after 2 police official, 2 security guards and 4 miners were murdered by striking miners between 12 and 14 August. On 16 August, after storming police forces with traditional weapons and small arms, 34 miners were shot dead by SAPS members and another 78 miners were injured. This became known as the Marikana Massacre.
24 November 2012 – Protea Coin cash compound, Robertsville, western Johannesburg. At around 17:00, the Task Force confronted a group of 20 heavily armed cash in transit robbers in a foiled robbery, after the robbers were cornered and opened fire on the members of the Task Force, they returned fire killing 7 and wounding 9 of the robbers. None of the Task Force members were injured in the shootout.
In December 2013 - The Special Task Force was deployed to provide additional security when about 91 heads of state and leaders attended the state memorial service of Nelson Mandela and his funeral after he died on 5 December 2013.
10 December 2016 - Eight suspected ATM bombers were killed in a shoot-out when Special Task Force officers intercepted them as they were travelling to Howick. No STF members were injured. 
Recruitment and training
Prospective members have to be at least 21 years old and must have served at least two years in the South African Police Service. The volunteer must also show certain traits such as:
- Physical strength and ability
- A sense of responsibility
- Mental Endurance
- Leadership skills
- Sound judgement
- Rational and methodical thinking
- Handling stress
- Observation and orientation skills
Applicants for a career in the STF must be:
- Willing to undergo and pass psychometric evaluations;
- Medically fit (with doctor’s recommendations);
- Able to and skilled at swimming ;
- Prepared to undergo training for nine months, (basic & advanced training);
- Voluntary applicants;
- Permanent members of the SAPS with the rank of constable, sergeant or inspector;
- Comply with the specific physical requirements for male or female candidates respectively; and
- Prepared to do advanced courses for three years.
All Task Force applicants are volunteers and have to comply with stringent physical requirements before being admitted to the basic training and selection course. The basic training course is twenty-six weeks long and includes weapons, rural and urban combat as well as basic parachute training courses. Compulsory advanced courses include special skills such as diving, VIP protection, explosives and medical training. The total initial training period is nine months, but completing all the requisite advanced courses to become a full-fledged Special Task Force operational member may last up to three years.
Highlighting the stringent selection process During the STF Training Course in 2005 a total of 453 applications were received. When pre-selection was done, only 108 of the 453 candidates measured up to pre-selection requirements. Of the 108 who made it through pre-selection, only 42 completed the Preparation and Condition (PREPCON) phase, and only 20 candidates managed to complete the Vasbyt phase. The recruits who didn't pass the PREPCON phase admitted that their failure to do so was due to the insufficient preparation for the course because they had thought that STF’s standards have been lowered. Members of the unit have visited foreign units of a similar role on several occasions, to ensure that the structure and procedures of the unit is in line with international training courses, and to keep up with changes in training and other specialized fields.
According to the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), the recipients of the "National Diploma: South African Special Forces Operations" qualification (Qualification ID: 48879) will be able to:
- Apply special weapons and tactics (SWAT).
- Apply air infiltration techniques.
- Perform building assaults.
- Sustain themselves away from base in the field.
Although membership of the Special Task Force open to both male and female SAPS members, female operatives undergo a separate selection course.
In 2004 it was reported that the SAPS STF may have lost nearly 60 percent (130 operators) of its active members (230 operators) to private companies recruiting security personnel to work in Iraq and other conflict countries due to the demand for their skills.
As of 2004 with the implementation of affirmative action policy and a special course for females, the STF welcomed their first female operators in its ranks.
In 2010 top officers of the unit were sent to the United States to brush up on their crisis response skills.
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- Miller, David (January 2002). Special Forces: The Men, the Weapons, and the Operations. Salamander Books. ISBN 1840650214.