Policing in South Africa: it doesn't have to be the low road

After 20 years of democracy, South Africa's police are still precariously set between the risk of complete failure and the challenges of professionalism.

On the first of April next year, the South African Police Service (SAPS) will commemorate 20 years as a democratic police service – but sadly it has not always lived up to public expectations of democratic policing. In the past decade, especially, increasing levels of corruption, criminality and brutality have seriously tarnished the SAPS’s image.

Incidents such as the killing in August 2012 of 34 striking mineworkers at Marikana, along with the poor performance of many senior and key police witnesses at the subsequent commission of inquiry, only added to an impression of clumsiness and incompetence among South Africa's police leadership.

This followed in the wake of the conviction and imprisonment in 2010 of the first civilian as the national commissioner of the SAPS on a corruption charge; the removal in 2012 of his successor, also a civilian, after a board of inquiry found him unfit for the position; and the ongoing investigation of serious criminal charges against a number of serving police generals. With the 20-year commemoration approaching, it seems like an opportune time to ask questions about the next 20 years. Will we see the police service continuing on the low road, with an ongoing loss of public trust and confidence; or will we see turn-around interventions leading to the high-road scenario and a more professional SAPS?

It seems like an opportune time to ask questions about the next 20 years

In the low-road scenario, very little will change and the consequences of poor command and control, weak internal oversight, low morale and poor discipline will continue and probably escalate. These problems were already identified by the police themselves through the work of the SAPS Policy Advisory Council between 2006 and 2008, but very little attention was given to their findings and recommendations, and as a result, the situation deteriorated even further.

Criminal cases against police members investigated by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) increased by 18,6% between 2008 and 2011 – and only slightly decreased by 7% in 2012. Cases of police brutality increased by 31,6% during the same period, decreasing slightly by 6,6% in 2012. According to the 2012/13 annual report of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), which replaced the ICD in 2012, criminal reports against police officers remain at a very high level, although their different mandates make comparison difficult.

The low-road scenario would also see a continuation of the ‘serial management crisis’ within the SAPS, as identified in the National Development Plan (NDP). This situation is aggravated by the appointment of individuals who don’t have any policing experience or expertise to senior positions in the SAPS. The ongoing management crisis filters through the ranks and, combined with poor leadership, causes uncertainty and a drop in morale. This, in turn, erodes efficiency, and creates conditions that are conducive to corruption and other forms of criminality.

Linked to largely ineffective internal oversight structures, such as the national and provincial inspectorates, the culture of impunity becomes ever more ingrained in the psyche of the police. When there is no real accountability or consequences for non-performance or contraventions of the disciplinary code, or for criminal offences, many police members will continue to exploit these systemic weaknesses. As a result, matters will become progressively worse and the SAPS will find themselves locked in a spiral of growing incompetence and criticism.

A turn-around strategy already exists in the form of the NDP

In contrast, the high road paints a completely different scenario, as there would have to be a fundamental breakaway from the practices that continue to weaken the SAPS. In this scenario, there would be a firm political commitment to implement a turn-around strategy in the SAPS, and to reorganise it into the professional organisation it can become.

A turn-around strategy already exists in the form of the NDP and many other constructive recommendations extracted from various reports. The implementation of these recommendations would see a police service that moves away from its current slippery slope onto a firm pathway towards professionalism.

For example, implementing the NDP will see a police leadership that is appointed on a proper competitive basis according to who is best qualified to both lead and manage. Such leaders will enjoy the respect of their members because they would have been appointed for the right reasons. In turn, such leaders would have the courage to resist attempts at inappropriate interference in the way the SAPS conducts itself. They would also hold to account those who fail to meet the basic requirements of professional policing.

A professional police service will recruit the very best and train them well. They will perform their duties in circumstances of good command and control, where they are properly supervised and guided. It may take a while to root out those members who do not fit the profile of a professional police officer, but pride and esprit de corps would gradually return – and with it a healthy morale and the motivation to perform well.

The high road is the obvious better direction for the SAPS, and the new political leadership are now responsible for ensuring that they are firmly placed on this new road.

Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, Pretoria

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