A case of poisoned chalice or poisoned politics?

SA has skilled officers, and yet the president appointed seven police heads in the last 10 years.

It would not be unreasonable to think that the post of national commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) is a poisoned chalice. In the past decade, seven people – three permanent and four in acting positions – have occupied this post. Each permanent appointment ended badly following a protracted legal process.

In the latest round of appointments, Lt-General Lesethja Mothiba was last week announced as South Africa’s acting national commissioner. He replaces Lt-General Khomotso Phahlane who faces suspension following a corruption investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

The fundamental problem is not the rigours of the position, nor that there are no suitable candidates. There are in fact a number of highly experienced and skilled senior police commanders who could do a good job. But for political reasons, these people are not appointed.

The constitution allows only the president to appoint and remove the national commissioner – and as is the case for South Africa’s flagging economy – Jacob Zuma’s presidency has been disastrous for the police and public safety.

Despite a substantial budget of R80 billion for the current financial year, along with vast resources and the efforts of many good police officers, the SAPS is not performing as well as it should.

SA’s constitution allows only the president to appoint and remove the national commissioner

For example, since 2011/12 there has been a 55% reduction in the number of crime threat analysis reports produced. Provided by the Crime Intelligence Division, these reports should enable police commanders at station precinct level to better target their resources at those committing serious crimes.

Overall, visible policing has dropped in the same period – there’s been a 74% decline in the number of roadblocks and 64% drop in the number of ‘cordon and search operations’. Consequently, the detection rate (the proportion of cases for which the police are able to identify a suspect) has declined to 25% for murder and 18% for robbery as of last year. This means that most perpetrators of these crimes are escaping arrest and investigation.

The detective services are also struggling to effectively tackle organised crime and corruption. The elite investigation unit, the Hawks, has shown a notable decline in its performance. The number of annual convictions achieved by the Hawks dropped by 83% from 7 037 in the 2010/11 financial year to 1 176 in 2014/15.

The Hawks head, Lieutenant-General Berning Ntlemeza, is currently on suspension following repeated high court findings that he lacks integrity and honour.

Last year only 11 convictions were achieved in terms of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act and four were achieved in terms of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act.

The consequence of this declining performance has a direct impact on public safety. Last year, the SAPS recorded 18 673 murders – an almost 20% increase compared to five years ago. To put it more starkly, 3 119 more people lost their lives violently in the past financial year than was the case five years ago.

This is partly the result of the substantial rise in armed attacks of people on the streets, car hijackings and attacks on homes and businesses.

Despite a budget of R80 billion, SAPS is not performing as well as it should

The past financial year saw 132 527 aggravated robberies reported to the police, which represents a 31.5% increase compared to five years ago. Consequently, feelings of safety have been declining among the public since 2011, according to the latest Statistics SA Victims of Crime Survey. The survey shows that 77% of South African households believe that public sector corruption has worsened over the past three years.

Given the evidence of large-scale corruption at the highest levels of government revealed in the public protector’s 2016 investigations and the recent Guptagate emails, this finding is hardly surprising.

The SAPS national commissioner is an all-powerful position, and he or she has the final say on almost everything that happens in the organisation. Poor leadership at this level impacts directly on the performance of the SAPS as a whole.

Fortunately, government’s National Development Plan (NDP) provides practical solutions to what has been described as a ‘serial crisis’ of police management.

First, the NDP recommends that a National Policing Board be established with multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary expertise. The board would set standards for recruitment, selection, appointment and promotion of police officers. This is important because currently there are no clear criteria governing what is expected from the person holding the post of SAPS national commissioner.

Second, the NDP recommends that the national commissioner be appointed by the president after recommendations by a selection panel. The panel would interview candidates against objective criteria, following a transparent and competitive recruitment process. This wouldn’t require a change to the constitution as the president would still make the appointment.

There are no clear criteria governing what is expected from SA’s national police commissioner

Clear criteria and a transparent appointment process would go a long way to ensuring that the person chosen for this important position is the best available option. By the time of the appointment, the public and police officers would have insight into the person and their integrity, and what they could bring to the position.

Zuma’s SAPS appointments seem primarily to be determined by whether he believes he can control or at least influence those he appoints. This is one way to ensure that he can prevent, limit or influence criminal investigations against him and those he seeks to protect.

The best efforts of many commanders and street-level police officials are not enough to improve the performance of the SAPS overall when the person running the organisation lacks integrity or ability.

Of course, appointing the best possible person to this key position is not the only solution. But improving SAPS leadership would go a long way towards solving the fundamental problem facing policing in South Africa.

Gareth Newham, Head, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria

This is an extract of an article first published by Business Day.

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