South Africa’s police need urgent and fundamental reform

Despite a deep crisis, police leaders show no sign of acting on the many official recommendations available to them.

Pressure from the public and political opposition is growing, but police reform in South Africa is unlikely to happen anytime soon. An attempt in May by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee to discuss changes needed to ‘fix’ the South African Police Service (SAPS) was cancelled at short notice, with no reasons given.

More telling is the number of official reports in the past decade highlighting key challenges and presenting practical options to improve policing. These include the National Development Plan (2012), Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry Report (2014), Marikana Commission of Inquiry Report (2015), White Paper on Policing (2016), State of Democratic Policing Report (2017) and more recently, the Panel of Experts Report on Policing and Crowd Management (2018).

These apparently lie gathering dust with no independent verification of whether their recommendations have been implemented, and if so, to what effect. Meanwhile, the SAPS faces an ever-deepening crisis.

Reports on internal battles in the SAPS’ top leadership and the underlying weaknesses that characterise the police are prevalent. Since the ‘serial crises of top management’ were first identified by the National Planning Commission in 2012, many functions of the SAPS have deteriorated.

In Gallup’s 2019 global Law and Order Index, South Africa scored fifth lowest of 142 countries

Since then too, serious, violent and organised crime has escalated, as evidenced by the 37% increase in murder and 43% rise in armed robberies. According to Gallup’s 2019 global Law and Order Index, South Africa scored fifth lowest out of 142 countries. Only Liberia, Gabon, Venezuela and Afghanistan fared worse.

According to Yale Law School’s Dr Monica Bell, meaningful and effective police reform requires accurately identifying the ‘theory of the policing crisis and its solutions’. The extent of the crises in the SAPS is well documented, but a lack of information means we don’t know whether the recommendations are adequate for reform of policing in South Africa.

Finding a universally accepted definition of ‘police reform’ can be difficult. But a committed group of experts officially appointed for this purpose could agree on a common understanding in the South African context.

Resistance to change would probably come from within the SAPS itself. Police organisational cultures are not traditionally open to change. And concerns relating to performance assessments and accountability, and the impact of these on career prospects, no doubt also dampen police enthusiasm for reform.

Given the extent to which top SAPS leadership is part of the crisis, the reform process must include authoritative parties from outside. Of course, carefully selected untainted SAPS members would participate in such a government-led initiative that should also involve suitably qualified people from various sectors.

Because police leaders are part of the crisis, the reform process must include authoritative outside parties

The National Development Plan indicates how this could be done. It recommends a National Police Board with multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary expertise to set standards for police recruitment, selection, appointment and promotion.

Ultimately, police reform is about improving effectiveness. In diverse and democratic contexts, achieving this is more likely when the police have attained an acceptable level of public legitimacy. Legitimacy, in turn, is reliant on public trust and confidence in law enforcement. This is probably the greatest challenge to any police reform process. ‘Very few reforms will “stick” unless a foundation of community trust is established,’ says Professor Laurie Robinson from George Mason University.

An article in the Association for Psychological Science journal defines legitimacy broadly as ‘the belief among people in a society that those in power deserve to rule and make decisions influencing the lives of others.’ On policing more specifically, legitimacy is described as ‘the judgments of ordinary people about the authority of the police to make discretionary decisions with respect to enforcing the law and maintaining social order.’

In a 2019 paper on police reform, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) explained that the process ‘aims to transform the values, policies and practices of police organisations so that they can perform their duties with respect for democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.’

President Cyril Ramaphosa should take a strong stand to kick-start the reform process in the SAPS

The paper says there’s no single model for police reform and that every reform process must reflect its own context. However, it does recognise two core goals common to all such endeavours: ‘improving police capacity and effectiveness, and improving the integrity and accountability of the police.’

But more importantly, on the question of how to carry out police reforms, the DCAF paper says it requires coordination between multiple stakeholders. Government should initiate and actively support the effort and encourage other stakeholders to do the same.

The process should also include consultation with and involvement of oversight institutions, civil society organisations and the public. And, as Dr Andrew Faull of the Institute for Security Studies argues, strong leadership and the involvement of skilled technocrats will be crucial for the success of such a reform process.

Improving policing will inevitably require associated interventions in other parts of the criminal justice system. President Cyril Ramaphosa has already taken decisive steps to strengthen the National Prosecuting Authority, starting with the appointment of prosecutions head Advocate Shamila Batohi, followed by other senior staff. However, the NPA’s ability to establish the rule of law and public safety depends almost entirely on the cases sent to it by the police.

Ramaphosa should take a strong stand to kick-start the reform process in the SAPS. It will undoubtedly be a difficult and time-consuming process but must be done without further delay. The safety and well-being of 60 million people living in South Africa depend on it.

Johan Burger, Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

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Photo: GCIS/Flickr

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