Skip to main content

By Devi Pillay

[First published in the Daily Maverick]

Not only are the police themselves often responsible for violence and criminality, but since 2009, the previous five national police commissioners have all been sanctioned for criminal acts, including fraud, corruption, obstruction of justice, and even murder.

The SAPS is clearly not currently fit for purpose – it is failing in both crime prevention and detection. Despite commitments from the president to clean up and strengthen law enforcement institutions, there appears to be no real agenda for the reform of the SAPS.

This is not for lack of information – in fact, both government and civil society institutions have plenty of high-quality data, research and reform strategies at their fingertips. The need for wide-ranging and drastic reform of policing in South Africa has been very well articulated in recent public discourse.

What, then, is preventing the reform of this institution? This was one of the topics under discussion at a recent roundtable hosted by the Association of Former Directors-General and the Public Affairs Research Institute on the state of the criminal justice system.

The case for reform

The police’s record speaks for itself. Violent crime, and in particular murder, is not stabilising and is in fact getting demonstrably, measurably worse. There has been a 62% increase in murders and 32% increase in armed robberies since 2012.

Not only are the police failing to keep us safe, but they are failing to investigate and bring to account the perpetrators of these crimes; 86% of murder cases and 90% of robbery cases went unsolved last year.

A very small percentage of cases are even investigated and there is little to no evidence being collected on community-based crimes – in short, most police dockets are empty.

People cannot trust a police service that fails to keep them safe – and who are often themselves responsible for violence and criminality. According to the Human Sciences Research Council, as of last year just 27% of citizens had some trust in the police.

Not once during the past 23 years did more than half the adult public say that they trusted the police, but the conduct of the police over the last few years has brought trust levels to a new low. This further impedes the capabilities of the police, who cannot rely on the cooperation of the communities they are supposed to serve.

The SAPS has failed completely to use its own accountability mechanisms to address these problems. There seem to be no consequences for poor performance.

Internal discipline has all but collapsed. In an organisation of 190,000, notorious for widespread criminal activity, violence, and abuses of power committed, hardly any officers are ever held accountable through disciplinary processes.

The most likely outcome of a disciplinary hearing, where there has been investigation and there is prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, is a written warning; the least likely outcome is being dismissed.

By failing to use the available means to prevent crime in its own ranks, the SAPS is only falling further into dysfunction.

What is being done?

President Cyril Ramaphosa and various political leaders have emphasised the need to strengthen and reform law enforcement institutions, especially as part of the state’s response to State Capture. But the only concrete plans or proposals involve increasing the police budget and hiring more police officers. These plans bear little relevance to the real state of the police.

The police force employs almost 190,000 people. Since 2012, the budget of the police has grown by 72% from R58-billion to the current R108-billion, while police performance has simultaneously dramatically worsened, as demonstrated in the statistics above.

There is no evidence that hiring more personnel will do anything to improve the situation. Yet despite lip service paid to “capacity building” and “training”, we have seen no implementable reform strategy from the state – or, indeed, any will to take seriously the institutional failures of the SAPS and the legitimacy crisis it is currently facing.

Other law enforcement institutions have been more fortunate. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has been at the centre of much of the national discussion with a highly publicised reform programme, starting with the implementation of a new, transparent appointment process for the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP).

Binding constraints preventing change

Nothing substantial will change as long as the senior leadership of the SAPS remains untouched. The roundtable discussants agreed that this is a major priority and necessary prerequisite for broader institutional reforms.

This would mean substantial reform of appointment and dismissal processes, and real efforts to ensure that the SAPS leadership is held accountable for its failures.

The politicisation of the organisation has been well documented, as has persistent improper political interference at the highest levels, including at the level of national commissioner. South Africa has had six commissioners since 2009 – not one has lasted their entire term and all have had significant political connections to the president responsible for their appointment.

The previous five have all been sanctioned for criminal acts, including fraud, corruption, obstruction of justice, and even murder. For long stretches, the position has been held by an acting commissioner – which sidesteps appointment processes and compromises any independence the office might have.

In comparison with requirements for the NDPP, the existing legislative framework has minimal requirements for the appointment of the national commissioner of the SAPS.

The selection criteria for the national police commissioner is significantly less rigorous than for the lowest rank of constable. To fill the role the candidate only has to meet three criteria: be over 18, be a South African citizen, and have no criminal record or pending cases.

The national commissioner has significant powers of appointment, including appointing all provincial commissioners of SAPS, and can appoint or promote officers in the organisation without going through a selection process.

Reforming these appointment processes is critical for ensuring the organisation is functional and independent. In 2012, the NDP recommended an independent panel to appoint the national commissioners and deputy national commissioners following a transparent, merit-based process in order to address the “serial crises of top management” in the SAPS – but no moves have been made to turn this into a reality.

A necessary first step would be a comprehensive assessment of senior management. While some police leaders are experienced and skilled professionals, the senior echelon has been inflated due to automatic promotions and patronage-based appointments.

Many generals are themselves involved in criminal networks and corruption; many are protected by powerful politicians; many simply aren’t qualified for their positions.

The SAPS needs to determine how its top leaders were appointed and whether they have the necessary skills and abilities for their position. Appropriate steps should be taken to remove or redeploy people where necessary; these posts should be filled following a transparent and merit-based process.

The SAPS needs a concrete plan for improving its core capabilities, and particularly for ensuring it can keep up with the growth and increasing complexity of organised crime in South Africa.

Capabilities need to be built across the system, as law enforcement institutions are dependent on one another – the NPA cannot effectively prosecute crimes if SAPS does not have the ability to properly investigate them.

Accountability measures and internal discipline need to be assessed and prioritised. The organisation must regain and protect its independence from improper political interference, starting with its highest positions.

Institutional reforms to professionalise the police service are critical, and the support of the organisation’s leadership is necessary for any of them to succeed.