Thousands of new SA police recruits may yield little benefit

The rush to hire won’t deliver the better quality officers and police leaders South Africa needs.

Over the past year, concerns have been raised about the decline in the number of police in South Africa. Due to budgetary restrictions, last year’s Treasury projections were that the number of South African Police Service (SAPS) personnel would drop by 13%, or 24 413 employees, to 162 945 by 2023-24.

In response to these concerns, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the hiring of 12 000 police officials in his 2022 State of the Nation Address. This is higher than the figure of 10 000 new members noted by Deputy Police Minister Cassel Mathale in November last year. According to the SAPS, the recruitment of 7 000 members has already started.

But this approach reflects shortcomings in government thinking about how to strengthen policing. Rigorous standards are needed when bringing in and training new SAPS members, and the rush to hire suggests that lessons from our recent history haven’t been learnt.

A massive recruitment drive between 2003 and 2012 resulted in 123 606 new police joining the organisation – an average of more than 12 300 a year. The total number of personnel reached 199 345 in 2012. But rather than improving policing, there has since been a steady decline in the SAPS’ performance.

Research shows that this deterioration can be linked to the fact that many who join the SAPS have little interest in policing as a vocation. Instead, it is often a last-ditch attempt at getting a job when other options fail.

En masse recruitment makes it more difficult for SAPS to hire only the most suitable candidates

Pressure to reach recruitment targets during mass hiring programmes inevitably undermines standards during selection, training and assessment. En masse recruitment makes it more difficult for the SAPS to ensure that only suitable candidates are accepted. And those recruits who do aspire to become capable police officers often lose out as training and support systems are strained by large volumes.  

The SAPS knows this. In 2019 the human resources and training components told Parliament they wanted to focus on ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’ and minimise the risk of corruption in hiring processes. But political pressure to escalate the pace of recruitment undermines these goals.

One of the reasons for the renewed focus on increasing police numbers is last year’s July public violence. The high-level panel that looked into the state’s response found that ‘There is no doubt that the police had insufficient capacity to stop the violence.’

But the recruitment process is being initiated without government having resolved basic questions about how to augment SAPS public order policing capacity. An essential requirement is an effective and sustainable framework for mobilising auxiliary support for public order units.

New police recruits receive four weeks of training in crowd management as part of their basic training. This approach has been in place for several years but was ineffective in responding to the July 2021 unrest.

Four weeks of crowd management training didn’t equip regular police to respond to the 2021 unrest

The expert panel recommended that ‘Police officers at station level should receive adequate training in crowd control.’ But this isn’t a sustainable approach. Crowd management training cannot be provided once-off and needs to be supplemented by regular in-service courses. The SAPS already has considerable difficulty providing consistent in-service training for its existing full-time public order unit members.

Other questions are how SAPS members at station level are to be mobilised into public order formations – and how these formations will be commanded – should large-scale unrest break out. It’s also unclear if they would be provided with protective equipment or vehicles for their deployment.

A potentially viable approach involves establishing auxiliary public order units that provide support during large-scale disorder in each of the country’s 176 policing clusters. These auxiliary units would be maintained at optimum strength in areas vulnerable to disruption and violence.

In the nine years after 2012, when the SAPS reached nearly 200 000 employees, it has hired 35 657 personnel, an average of fewer than 4 000 a year. During the same period, it lost 43 290 (an average of 4 810 a year) due to resignations, retirement, deaths and dismissals.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, recruitment appears to have been suspended because training requires face-to-face contact. Police numbers have declined more rapidly, falling by more than 5 000 between 2020 and 2021.

Without better leadership, even well-trained police recruits will be ineffectively utilised

The question of how many police officers would be optimal for South Africa remains open. But considering that SAPS numbers have fallen, recruitment – with a strong emphasis on quality – is needed.

Consistently high standards must be applied by SAPS personnel responsible for hiring and training. Sustained recruitment over several years in smaller batches accompanied by strict vetting and assessment will do far more to improve policing in South Africa.

Each recruit is a long-term financial investment in training, salaries, benefits, uniforms and equipment. Due care can ensure that this public money is invested effectively.

Better policing also requires professional and competent SAPS leaders. Without a substantially rejuvenated leadership cohort, even well-trained recruits will be ineffectively utilised, whether in day-to-day policing or in responding to public unrest.

David Bruce, Independent Researcher on violence, policing and public security

This article forms part of the author’s policing and public violence work for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles have been given to Daily Maverick in South Africa and Premium Times in Nigeria. For media based outside South Africa and Nigeria that want to re-publish articles, or for queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Image: © GCIS/Flickr

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Related content