South Africa

Analysis: SAPS fails to transform into public service post-Marikana

By Marianne Merten 8 September 2017

The transformation of policing remains unsettled and unfinished. It is not about racial or gender targets in the just over 190,000-strong force, or settling political and other scores in a faction-ridden, top-heavy general-laden SAPS which clearly regards itself as a force, despite the “service” bit in its name. It is about how those in blue do their jobs – and whether all living in South Africa regardless of socio-economic status or political connectivity can feel safe. And it is about public and political accountability. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

The gap between what policing could be and what it should be in a constitutional democracy, and what it actually is, emerged sharply this week in the cramped, overheated V227 committee room in Parliament. The police committee was being told of work done since police killed 34 Marikana miners on 16 August, 2012 in what is widely regarded as democratic South Africa’s equivalent to the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960.

In June 2015, the Marikana Commission of Inquiry released its report, recommending an overhaul of public order policing. This included a stop to the use of lethal and automatic weapons, availability of first aid, how command decisions are taken and by whom and how decisions are accounted for, alongside the demilitarisation and professionalisation of the SAPS in line with the National Development Plan (NDP). Eleven months later a panel of experts, including some from outside South Africa, was appointed in April 2016, alongside a transformation team including the SAPS.

There are other, often politically contested issues, related to the Marikana killings by police, from compensation, outstanding socio-economic developments like housing in this North West mining town or the lack of prosecutions of officials responsible for the killings. To date the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) is stifled in completing the commission’s recommendations to establish police culpability – as the SAPS has repeatedly declined to make funds available for the reconstruction of scene two at the Marikana koppies.

These are crucial issues that should dominate public discourse as they talk directly to how governance unfolds, or not, in a constitutional democracy. But equally key is how the SAPS has responded, beyond absolving 87 of its own through an in-house process of any responsibility for the killings, to what has been the single most devastating incident in South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

And so an SAPS general on Tuesday as usual hauled out figures to dazzle and hint at achievement. As of July 2017 there are 5,343 public order police (POP) officers, with another 905 posts to be filled in the current financial year.

But the devil is in the detail. Among the listing of completed crowd management courses – the numbers don’t quite add up as 8,019 platoon members were trained, but only 13 platoon commanders – emerged deeply worrying training. This included “maintenance shooting” with handguns (4,457 POPS trained), rifles (4,437) and shotguns (4,436), even as the Marikana commission said public order policing must move away from lethal force. Similar concerns arise over the course on offer during this 2017/18 financial year: “40mm grenade launcher”.

Just 19 POP personnel were trained in crowd conflict management, an international best practice and key to ensure protests do not escalate into violence or confrontation. In the current 2017/18 financial year, the SAPS aims to train 50.

Concerns also arise on the shopping list of goodies and gadgets, worth R241.96-million. Alongside protective gear, Nyalas, medical kits, fire extinguishers and blue lights, there are three LRAD 100 X and five LRAD 500 X, or sonic disabling instruments. This inclusion comes, Daily Maverick has been informed, as the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) conditionally approved the use of only the LRAD 100 X, and then only if handled by trained and certified operators and with its weapons capability disabled. There is no POP training course on this gadget listed in the police plans presented to MPs.

And the SAPS sidestepped professionalisation and demilitarisation of the police, both central points alongside a national police board to oversee senior and top appointments outlined in the NDP, South Africa’s blueprint officially adopted by Cabinet and Parliament five years ago. “The professionalising of the SAPS must be prioritised,” said the presentation. The ultimate outcome of three workshops on demilitarisation was summarised that it “is a concept that involves much more than just a change in ranks” and as demilitarisation could not be clearly defined, this made “implementation difficult for the SAPS Management”.

But this is the SAPS fudging and politicking to further its predilection for strong-arm displays of force like special search-and-seizure operations late at night or early mornings, saturating areas where police usually are like needles in a haystack.

Twenty-three years ago South Africa’s focus was on safety and security. After the 1994 democratic transition much work was done at legislative and policy level to change the skop, skiet en donner tactics of apartheid police to one of service to and for communities.

But initiatives like community policing forums were sabotaged by the SAPS which largely regarded such interactions with so-called civilians as undermining police authority. And laws like those aimed at protecting rape and domestic violence survivors have been resisted with passive-aggressive obstinacy from being fully implemented. The domestic violence legislation was implemented 19 years ago, but in 2017 the SAPS is still unable to consistently effect even its most basic requirements, like having the necessary complaint forms in vehicles.

The SAPS has never come to grips with being a public service responsive to the needs of all who live in South Africa as it must be in a constitutional democracy. The mindset and attitudinal change simply has not happened. And herein the SAPS also fails in its duty of political accountability.

With crime intelligence in turmoil and fingered for playing a role in the country’s politics, particularly the governing ANC’s factional interests, rather than supporting pro-active policing, the revolving door of acting and permanent national police commissions has been involved in various internal faction fights and disputes with Ipid. The leadership crisis has meant the rise of those who learnt policing in the apartheid years and in bantustans, and factional fighting among the generals that, for example, has led to an officer with 17 years experience in public order policing shuffling papers at head office.

The Marikana killings by police on public record revealed serious deficiencies, including the absence of decision logs, while the inquiry also showed concerted internal moves to conceal the record of decision-making towards the so-called “tactical” option that led to the massacre of miners.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what command and control is. It is not saluting a superior officer and blindly following orders. Command and control in a police service in a constitutional democracy is being able to use situational discretion, account for decisions taken and produce the required planning and other supportive evidence in transparent answerability.

The panel of experts established following the Marikana commission report has done much work, not only on public order policing, but also the required attitudinal change across the SAPS. It presented a picture of what policing could be.

Protecting life, not property, is crucial, with the use of force limited to situations of imminent threat to life. Planning for peaceful protests must be the focus, alongside conflict resolution and problem solving, according to the panel’s update briefing.

The ability to de-escalate a situation was central to policing, and could occur at any stage even as a situation is turning acrimonious through tools like negotiation. All protests regardless of who held them had to be treated in a non-discriminatory way to the same norms. Skilled, trained and experienced POP personnel on the ground enabled to make situational decisions are needed together with individual and collective discipline.

But there are other issues at the core of professionalising and demilitarising the SAPS. Credible and competent leadership is one, but so is a two-tier system that delinks ranks from competency, particularly in non-operational police fields like forensics, legal and such areas. If competency and skill become the focus, remuneration can be adapted to retain skills.

Proper resourcing for those on the ground and at station level is another contributor to professionalising the SAPS. Why should the generals have a car and driver at their beck and call, when the POP constable doesn’t have a helmet and shield?

The transforming of policing, its professionalisation and demilitarisation, is a pressing task. It goes beyond holding special high-profile operations that these days seem to have become the quick-fix solution amid war talk from generals, and several politicians, invoking law and order, national security and the authority of the state.

No war talk or bringing out the heavy arsenal can bring this about, as the Marikana Massacre showed. It can only happen – and it must happen urgently – when policing is transformed into an accountable public service that upholds democratic constitutional values like dignity, equality, freedom of the person alongside bodily and psychological integrity. South Africa’s people have the right to feel – and be – safe. DM

Photo: South African police check the bodies of striking mineworkers shot dead at the Wonderkop informal settlement near Marikana platinum mine, Rustenburg, South Africa, 16 August 2012. EPA/STR

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