The expensive side of police brutality and recklessness

By Mandy De Waal 16 July 2012

The SAPS has earmarked R11-billion for the payment of civil claims – money that could be spent developing or upgrading deteriorating assets – but which may well be spent on lawyers and payouts to victims of police brutality or ineptitude. What’s the cause of this massive contingency bill that taxpayers will ultimately have to pay for? MANDY DE WAAL investigates.

Justice Mabasa was staying with some friends in a block of flats in Durban when he was wrongfully arrested by the police. The 25-year-old student was doing a course at the Durban University of Technology in 2007, when he was erroneously accused of breaking and entering by the caretaker of the building. The caretaker had heard glass breaking before seeing Mabasa and registering that he didn’t know the young man. He automatically assumed Mabasa was the criminal and phoned the police, who swooped in to arrest the student. 

Without even verifying whether Mabasa was the guilty party, the police dragged him from his bed and attacked him while the caretaker sprayed pepper spray in the student’s eyes. The young man was detained at a police station but had to be taken to a hospital for the injuries he sustained during the assault. Afterwards he went to Westville Prison and was only released after the caretaker brought an affidavit to say he’d made a mistake. Charges against Mabasa were dropped and, after a traumatic ordeal, he was released.

The Pretoria News recently reported that a local high court judge found the SAPS were completely at fault in Mabasa’s case and lambasted the arresting officer for not even bothering to investigate the information before making the arrest. Mabasa will now be suing the SAPS for unlawful arrest, detention and assault. His claim is pegged at about R35-million.

Civil claims against the SAPS are rising. In its last financial report (2010/11), a staggering R11-billion was earmarked by the police for possible legal claims against the SAPS for false arrests as well as for legal costs, assault, shootings, damage to property and other “police actions”.

Speaking about the claims issue late last year, police minister Nathi Mthethwa said: “A total amount of R 106,239,616.81 was paid in legal costs as a result of 8,074 civil claims brought against the SAPS for the 2010/11 financial year. Payment of legal costs is not linked to a particular police station but if an officer is sued for whatever act of misconduct, it is the state that suffers financially and we cannot allow such things to become the norm.” 

The minister then called for stricter monitoring of police members’ conduct, saying that if this happened the flood of lawsuits against the SAPS would decrease dramatically.

Gareth Newham and Lizette Lancaster of the Institute of Security Studies suggest the SAPS should rather look at their hiring and training procedures, which they assert could have affected the quality of policing and subsequent claims.

“International experiences of mass police recruitment have typically resulted in unintended yet significant outcomes,” Newham and Lancaster write in a paper on the shift in police trends. “Police command and control systems take strain as frontline managers are required to supervise larger number of inexperienced and inadequately trained officials. Common consequences include increasing levels of police misconduct, corruption and brutality.”

Figures offered by Newham show that the total SAPS personnel force has grown from 132,310 to 190,199 in eight years, representing a growth of about 50%. During this period the SAPS has witnessed the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of one police chief (Jackie Selebi) for corruption, and the suspension of another (Bheki Cele).

In their report Newham and Lancaster note the SAPS has been in the news frequently, but for all the wrong reasons: police brutality, corruption and misconduct have become an almost a daily feature of the news. 

“In 2010, national police commissioner general Bheki Cele conceded to an increasingly frustrated Parliament Portfolio Committee on Police that the problem was “We have not been big on quality, we have been big on quantity. People have been thrown in by chasing quantity rather than quality.” 

Though it may have been easy to blame the “troops”, the real reason for the predicament was weak leadership and poor management. “Those tasked with leading the police had not thought through the consequences and had not strengthened recruitment and management systems,” the security institute pair state.

In a presentation on crime and policing in SA, Newham spells out the legacy new police commissioner Mangwashi Phiyega faces. He states that yesteryear’s bad strategic decisions have diminished special policing and this problem has been compounded by “uneven and weak senior management”. 

Another big challenge to changing perceptions is the way the police were positioned in the past. “They must not be set up in opposition to society, which the ‘war on crime’ rhetoric does. Communities must trust and not fear the police,” Newham advises. “Police safety is at stake when there is fear from communities.”

In his presentation, Newham stresses that a fundamental shift in the approach to policing is crucial. “Political and police leadership must focus on putting in place mechanisms to improve the professionalism of the SAPS that supports ‘smart’ rather than ‘tough’ policing. This will be in the interests of both police members and the broader community.”

Unfortunately this kind of change, even if it ever happens, would come too late for the likes of Mabasa and the taxpayer. Mabasa will have to live with the trauma of his experience for the rest of his life, while ultimately the taxpayer will foot the bill for his claim – and other claims – against the SAPS.

Paying more than $1.3-billion a year would stretch the budget of many a rich country in the world, let alone a country with as many problems as South Africa has today. And yet, somehow, buried in the veritable flood of bad news that SA’s bad governance generates every day, this outrageous amount gets to be almost tolerated. This money could be better used by training competent and attentive people, building many more police stations, improving forensics and developing smart community initiatives. 

But in a country so beset by incompetence and corruption, the R11-billion happens to be enough for just another brick in the wall of a gigantic non-delivery mechanism that’s called the South African government. DM

Read more:

  • The SA Police financial report 
  • Page 190
  • KZN cop violence a concern: IPID in Daily News
  • Metro cops caught on video assaulting but still on duty in City Press
  • Bully cops beware: Police watchdog gets a new set of teeth in Mail & Guardian
  • Top cop appointment an insult, says police union in City Press
  • In South Africa the Rule of Law Does not Apply to the Political Elite by Gareth Newham 
  • The Institute of Security Studies’ Crime and Justice Hub 
  • SAPS Annual Report 

Photo: Policemen open fire as protesting miners and residents burn tyres near Impala Platinum’s Rustenburg mine, February 16, 2012, as a month-long strike at the world’s second-largest producer of the precious metal turned violent.  REUTERS/Mike Hutchings 


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