South Africa has not had a formal national policy to improve public safety since 2004. This changed in 2016 when cabinet adopted the White Paper on Safety and Security. This is the government’s flagship policy on crime, safety and violence prevention. If properly implemented, it could make South Africa significantly safer.
But implementation is precisely the challenge. South Africa has no shortage of good policies. But virtually none of the proposals in the 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy and White Papers on Safety and Security (1998 to 2004) were implemented.
The country has a Programme of Action to address violence against women, children, people with disabilities and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. A coordinating structure is proposed in the Declaration of the Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide – and both initiatives share the vision of the White Paper. Neither are however integrated with the White Paper.
Ultimately, political leadership is key to ensuring that government departments plan, budget and implement the latest White Paper. For the policy to succeed, it must be driven by the Presidency.
The White Paper proposes a holistic, developmental approach to safety, and the establishment of an oversight mechanism to ensure implementation across government. It acknowledges the significant limits of criminal justice in providing safety and advocates for a focus on evidence-based violence prevention.
The policy’s developmental, holistic and evidence-based vision is key. Although South Africa’s criminal justice system is not optimal, the country’s endemic violent crime is not a result of a lenient state. Each year police arrest over 1.5 million people, the equivalent of 3% of the population.
South Africa also has some of the harshest minimum sentence legislation in the world. This requires judges to impose long sentences on those found guilty of certain crimes. As a result, sentences of between 10 and 15 years have soared over the past 15 years, while life sentences have increased by 818% since 2000 – the most rapid increase globally.
South Africa has the third most people serving life sentences, and the second highest ratio of prisoners serving life sentences in the world.
According to Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, this system ‘is illogical, inefficient and counterproductive. It is a poor substitute for efficacy and reason in combating crime.’ While criminal justice is central to crime prevention, the most efficient way to build a non-violent society is to ensure its overall health and well-being. Most importantly, this means providing stable, dignified employment for as many people as possible, and reducing inequality.
But it also requires caring for pregnant women; cultivating safe, nurturing relationships between children and parents; developing life skills in children and teenagers; promoting gender equality; changing cultural and social norms that support violence; reducing the harmful use of alcohol and access to dangerous weapons; supporting and caring for victims; promoting reason and rationality over intuition, culture and superstition; and ensuring good governance, the rule of law, and state legitimacy.
Most of this cannot be achieved by the criminal justice system alone. This is why the White Paper emphasises a coordinated multi-departmental approach to safety, and why it is vital that it be driven by the Presidency. No other department has the necessary authority or clout to ensure the requisite alignment and action across government.
In September 2018, the Civilian Secretariat for Police Services hosted a National Summit on Crime and Safety on the implementation of the White Paper. At the gathering, Police Minister Bheki Cele said crime was a product of where and how one was socialised.
‘If people live as animals they will behave as animals,’ he said. Cele added that the departments of justice and police couldn’t do much until this was addressed. Referring to the White Paper he said, ‘I like these documents, but when they are not implemented, they do not help.’
While Cele’s words suggest that he understands the policy and the importance of its implementation, police National Commissioner Khehla Sitole’s input at the summit didn’t mention the White Paper at all.
Although the White Paper isn’t a police-specific policy, the South African Police Service (SAPS) remains central to its successful implementation. All SAPS officials, from strategic planners to front-line officers, must understand their work in the context of the White Paper and an approach to safety that includes all of society. This will require leadership in the police, but most importantly, leadership from the Presidency.
The White Paper on Safety and Security provides an opportunity for the government-in-waiting to take safety seriously, and to unite the civil service to end the country’s endemic crime and violence. Politicians campaigning to lead South Africa after its 2019 elections can show they understand the country’s crime challenge by including the White Paper in their campaigns.
Come June 2019, we will be watching to see whether the newly elected president prioritises public safety by driving its implementation from the top. Without this, South Africa’s incoherent and criminal justice-heavy approach to crime will likely continue – with limited impact on the lives of its people.
Andrew Faull, Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS
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