Are South African police salaries fair?

The South African Police Service (SAPS) wants to re-enlist former police officers. But are police salaries good enough to entice former officers back to work or to keep serving members motivated? Many people don’t think so, but compared to most South Africans police are paid fairly well.

In 2018, constables earned between R175 000 and R213 000, sergeants between R222 000 and R270 000 and warrant officers between R278 000 and R407 000. These are all non-commissioned ranks which can be attained without any post-school training outside of what the organisation provides.

Senior SAPS managers can earn up to R2 million a year but most police will remain non-commissioned officers throughout their careers. Eighty-four percent (125 890) of officers employed in 2017/18 were constables, sergeants and warrant officers.

This is a feature of the occupation, not the SAPS. Police organisations must be bottom-heavy. While many officers enter the profession with aspirations of climbing the rank ladder, relatively few will as there will always be a limited number of managerial posts.

Most police will remain non-commissioned officers throughout their careers

Generally, officers remain in a rank for at least seven years before qualifying for rank progression, though in exceptional circumstances, they can be promoted within two. Within each rank there is a range of salary bands.

In 2017, the South African Police Union (SAPU) called the lack of promotion opportunities in the SAPS ‘a recipe for disaster’, suggesting it may encourage police corruption and criminality. While it is appealing to imagine a causal link between a low salary and a poor work ethic or abuse of power, research has failed to prove one.

Nor is there a clear link between police salaries, work ethic and abuse of power in South Africa. This is evident from an examination of both relative wages, and relative job access and job security. Reflection on each shows that employment in the SAPS is immensely valuable.

Despite being among the best paid workers in South Africa, senior SAPS officers are regularly found guilty of corruption. Both former national commissioner Jackie Selebi and ex-Western Cape commissioner Arno Lamoer earned more than 99% of South Africans. Would higher wages have stopped them from abusing their power? Probably not.

What about job access and security? Are jobs in the SAPS so easy to come by that officers take them for granted? The short answer is ‘no’. In August 2018, the SAPS reported that it had received over 500 000 applications for 3 500 trainee posts – meaning that 143 people applied for each available post. Applicants therefore had only a 0.7% chance of being hired.

Senior SAPS managers can earn up to R2 million a year

Considering that 27% of South Africa’s working population and 40% of those aged 15 to 34 are unemployed, securing a job in the SAPS is akin to winning the lottery. 

In 2016, 47% of all wage earners in South Africa earned less than R3 500 per month. SAPS constables earn approximately four times this amount. According to the South African Labour and Development Research Unit, 95% of South Africans earn less than R11 000 a month after tax. By this measure, SAPS constables’ incomes put them in the best earning 5% of the country.

The job also offers diverse career prospects and opportunities, with a range of training and development courses on offer, good medical aid, employee support services and other benefits. It is one of the few occupations in which one can spend a full career from recruitment to retirement – the proverbial job for life.

Does this mean that SAPS officials are rich? No. Their wealth is relative in a country where poverty is widespread and wages are generally meagre. What’s more, SAPS salaries must often support numerous people. Like many South African professionals, police officers are often the only breadwinners in extended networks of unemployed parents, siblings, children and other relatives.

But it’s not just about the SAPS. South Africa is among the most unequal countries worldwide. Inequality feeds discontent and erodes trust, including among a struggling middle class. This is one of the reasons that inequality predicts crime while poverty doesn’t.

The SAPS should ensure that only the best are recruited and promoted

Poverty in the shadow of extreme wealth sparks envy and anger. In South Africa, it is conspicuous consumption – luxury vehicles, overpriced alcohol and sprawling mansions – that are heralded as signs of success. Because most people, including most police, will never afford these, it can generate unhappiness. Police might feel poor, even if they earn relatively well.

The problem almost certainly lies more with the structure of South African society and the economy than it does with the SAPS. If most police officers were recruited from families where parents and siblings were employed and earned a constable-equivalent salary, and if they had or expected to find partners who earned the same, there would be significantly less strain on the SAPS (i.e. less crime and violence) and less strain on SAPS salaries.

But chronic mass unemployment and extreme income inequality appear set to remain. So too then will disaffection in the SAPS. Perhaps the best the SAPS can do is evaluate its employees fairly and appropriately reward their efforts as frequently as possible, and treat all with dignity.

At the same time, it should ensure that only the best are recruited and promoted, cast out the dead wood to make room for the thousands of passionate young people vying to join the SAPS and lift themselves and South Africa a little higher.

Andrew Faull, Consultant, Justice & Violence Prevention Programme

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