Roots of the crisis facing the South African police

The South African Police Service once again finds itself in the spotlight over abuse. Fixing the problem requires starting at the top.

The recent death of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia at the hands of police officials has once again turned the world’s attention to police brutality in South Africa. This incident only became a major media sensation because of video footage of Macia being dragged behind a police vehicle to the police station, where he was allegedly beaten to death. Statements condemning the incident have been forthcoming from South Africa’s political and police leaders, but they appear to be in denial about the scale of the problem, putting it down to a ‘handful of officers’. However, when considering that police abuse has been taking place for a number of years now, it is only a matter of time before a similar incident occurs.

Government’s denial of the crisis may be caused by the fact that it is rooted in the longstanding and persistent problem of poor leadership in the South African Police Service (SAPS). South Africa’s political leaders have not recognised policing as an important profession that requires high levels of skill and integrity. President Thabo Mbeki appointed Jackie Selebi, despite his lack of experience in and knowledge of policing, as the SAPS National Commissioner late in 1999. Selebi talked and acted tough. But it wasn’t long before he revealed his lack of understanding of the skills required to ensure that the tens of thousands of armed officials under his command would use their powers primarily to ensure public safety and enforce the law.

One of Selebi’s first strategic mistakes was to push for a mass recruitment drive of police officers. As crime levels were rising substantially at the time, Selebi assumed that ‘more police officials equals less crime’. The SAPS subsequently received a generous budgetary increase about twice that of the inflation rate. As a result, almost 70 000 more people have been recruited into the organisation since 2002. Unfortunately, Selebi was less interested in the importance of the quality and integrity of these recruits.

Selebi’s unwillingness to learn from the extensive policing experience around him or from international studies meant that he had little appreciation of the dangers that mass recruitment drives could pose. Hundreds if not thousands of people who either failed the basic requirements or were otherwise not fit to be police officials were allowed into the SAPS. Training was shortened from two years to one, and station-level commanders found themselves supervising large numbers of inadequately trained recruits without additional support. Management systems started to weaken as Selebi appointed people to senior posts regardless of their expertise or abilities.

One particularly notorious example took place in 2005 when Selebi appointed the new head of the SAPS’ National Inspectorate. This inspectorate was crucial for internal accountability as it was supposed to ensure that police stations adhered to SAPS regulations by undertaking station level inspections each year. Selebi appointed a person whom the Public Service Commission had recommended ‘be removed from his post for gross incompetence and failure to perform his duties’ while heading another government agency. It did not take long before the National Inspectorate collapsed and many stations went for years without being inspected. Other poor appointments made it abundantly clear that, under Selebi, promotion was based on political and personal loyalties and had little to do with professionalism or integrity.

As highly skilled senior managers left and others were ignored, a number of additional strategic blunders occurred. For example, Selebi shut down the important ‘area management’ tier that oversaw management and operations of clusters of police stations. This went along with the disbandment or ‘decentralisation’ of several important specialised police units such as the Anti-Corruption Unit, the murder and robbery units, the Family, Child and Sexual Offences Units and the Public Order Policing Units. The damaging effects of these moves are still being felt. With the weakening of specialised detective units, house and business robberies soared: between 2006 and 2009 these crimes had increased by 100% and 296% respectively. The FCS units have only recently been re-established and SAPS is struggling with public order policing, as the Marikana massacre so tragically highlighted.

When Selebi was finally forced out of the police after being convicted of corruption, many thought that more careful consideration would be given to the appointment of the new Commissioner. Unfortunately, this was not to be. President Jacob Zuma appointed his friend and political ally Bheki Cele to the top job. Once again the SAPS was saddled with a head who had no experience of policing and seemed to think the job simply required tough talk. To emphasise the ‘maximum force’ doctrine taking root among South Africa’s political leaders, military ranks were re-introduced and ‘shoot to kill’ political rhetoric became commonplace. Eventually, Cele was fired by President Zuma following a board of inquiry that found he acted unlawfully in a R1,7 billion police headquarter lease deal.

It is therefore not surprising that most indicators highlight ongoing and widespread problems with the police. Consider the following:

  • Between 2006 and 2009 the number of people shot dead by the police doubled from 281 to 556, despite crime having decreased by almost 20% since 2002.
  • The national spokesperson of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Moses Dlamini, stated during a national radio programme on 4 March 2013 that an assessment of complaints against the police shows that over the past 12 months ‘there is a pattern of abuse’.
  • Total civil claims against the police for abuses including wrongful arrests and destruction of property more than doubled in the past two years to R14,7 billion.
  • The 2012 National Victims of Crime Survey revealed that police corruption is the second most prevalent form of public sector corruption as reported by victims, and the rate has increased since 2011.
  • Less than half the adult population trust the police (42%) and 66% think that corruption is widespread in the police. 

While there are many excellent police officers in the SAPS, there are also far too many who should not be in the organisation. Fortunately, government’s National Development Plan (NDP) recognises that because of the leadership crisis, the SAPS cannot become a well-respected professional police agency. The NDP recommends that a National Policing Board with multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary expertise be established to set standards for recruiting, appointing and promoting police managers and officials. Most importantly, the NDP recommends that the SAPS National Commissioner and the deputies only be appointed following a competitive selection process. The President would then make the appointment from the vetted shortlist of professionals. This will prevent a situation where the SAPS head knows little about policing and struggles to provide the strategic and ethical guidance required for professionalising the SAPS.

Until the NDP’s recommendations are implemented, budget allocations to the SAPS will be spent on poorly considered policing strategies that are not rooted in international or local best practice. Frustrated and demoralised police officials will continue to engage in corruption and other acts of misconduct. Public mistrust of the police will remain, which will in turn limit the SAPS’ ability to reduce crime. South Africa has the resources, people and expertise to substantially improve policing. Hopefully the country’s leadership will realise this and act on the NDP’s recommendations as a matter of urgency.

Gareth Newham, Head, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today: video interview

Related content