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Policing in South Africa: A crisis of imagination and a...

South Africa

OP-ED

Policing in South Africa: A crisis of imagination and a failure of leadership

Illustrative image | Source: Gallo Images / Bloomberg / Waldo Swiegers | Wikimedia

The age of policing strategy being designed on the basis of a politician’s whim must come to an end and be replaced by a process of strategy development that is thoroughgoing, inclusive and forward-looking.

At a time when crime statistics paint a bleak picture of the insecure and unsafe lives led by ordinary South Africans, when gang violence and transnational organised crime pose a real threat to the survival of our state, the police seem in more disarray than ever. 

The three elements of this crisis: poor leadership, ineffective and incoherent approaches to solving the crime problem, and the lack of legitimacy among the citizenry, are significant and debilitating on their own. 

Their interaction and the level of intensity of all of them at a singular point in space and time present an existential threat to our democracy, and point to a problem much larger than any of these substantial challenges do on their own.

This problem is what I would call the strategy-political imaginary nexus, or more specifically the lack thereof. 

The era of the liberation movement in exile compelled it to be creative in its theorisation of South African society, its modes of organisation and the building of revolutionary capability… a continuity between thinking and praxis that resulted in the building of a powerful domestic political movement in the townships and the workplaces, and a formidable international movement to isolate the apartheid regime. 

In the period leading up to the democratic transition, and immediately thereafter, the movement was engaged in innovative and often difficult conversations, rooted in two primary drivers: the really-existing political situation and balance of forces on the one hand, and the strategy to transform South Africa in all respects on the other. 

In the security domain, the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS), the reorientation of the armed forces to a constitutionally-bound instrument of the national defence, and the White Paper on Intelligence that guided the establishment of accountable civilian intelligence services were some of the outcomes of this approach. 

The primacy of transformative national strategy is evident in all these documents.

But alas, no society has ever been transformed by the mere existence of documents, no matter how impressive and prescient they may be. 

The hard work of transformation is especially difficult in policing, where transformation has to be executed on the fly and under fire, ie, while continuing to deliver the policing service any society requires, at a time when we started seeing a significant, and what now appears to be sustained, spike in organised crime. 

‘At the moment when resilience in thought and action required commitment to the implementation of the National Crime Prevention Strategy, the leadership in both the executive and the police lost their will to persevere and capitulated to a return to the status quo ex-ante, a militarised police disconnected from the people, and relying on their ability to exert violence to solve the problem of crime.’

At the moment when resilience in thought and action required commitment to the implementation of the NCPS, the leadership in both the executive and the police lost their will to persevere and capitulated to a return to the status quo ex-ante, a militarised police disconnected from the people, and relying on their ability to exert violence to solve the problem of crime. 

This disastrous approach continues to bedevil our efforts to establish a transformative form of policing and a transformed police service.

The first effect of the return to the old mode of policing was to disconnect policing from the project of transforming and developing society as a whole. 

Despite all the talk of integration, interdepartmental cooperation and “whole of society” approaches to crime, we do not see the effect of this in practice, and certainly not at the level of the police station, which represents the most concrete point of interaction of the citizenry with the police. 

The SAPS therefore finds itself attempting to execute the Sisyphean task of rolling back a crime problem that has ballooned in scope, impact and boldness. 

The disservice done to policing by a political leadership (and a politicised, unthinking policing command) that has surrendered the policing space to old ideas is most aptly captured in the obsession with “back to basics”, with “back to” being the defining aspect of the approach. 

While transformation creates new forms of things, the idea of back to represents a nostalgia for the assumed effectiveness of the old ways of doing things.

The second principled effect of surrendering policing to the old way of doing things is reflected in the leadership of the police. 

A transformative strategy such as the NCPS required transformative police leaders not embedded in the apartheid-style policing that has come to recharacterise the SAPS. 

Once the transformative project was booted, the pool of leaders required to effect policing grew to include all and any senior police officer, while at the same time marginalising those whose history, ideas and practice within the police made them unsuitable candidates for apartheid-style militarised policing. 

Does this explain, for example, the obsession with various SAPS commissioners to transfer, suspend or attempt to dismiss what are clearly some of the most accomplished and progressive senior police officers in the service? 

The cases of Peter Jacobs and Jeremy Vearey are curious examples of this phenomenon.

But is a reimagination and reconstruction of policing in South Africa possible?

If the South African state is to survive it has to regain the twin elements of hegemony: the monopoly on the application of coercion, on the one hand, and the legitimate consent of the governed, on the other. 

The inability to manage gang violence, the pandemic of violence against women and children and the failure to impact in any significant way on the now-embedded transnational crime syndicates gives us no choice but to reinvent transformative policing in South Africa. 

Having learnt the lesson of crime’s intractability in the earlier effort at transformative policing as represented by the NCPS, we might now be able to apply the wisdom of hindsight in doing so.

The age of policing strategy being designed on the basis of a politician’s whim must come to an end, and be replaced by a process of strategy development that is thoroughgoing, inclusive and forward-looking.

A thoroughgoing and inclusive strategy process is one that is based on the deep and collective insight at the disposal of the state, and one that confronts the issues of crime and policing in their totality, as part of a national strategy to transform South Africa and build a developmental state. 

The disconnect between policing and development, which sits comfortably with old-style police leadership, is a self-evident and repetitive failure. The ANC and government must move beyond this disaster and failure of thinking, and reorient the SAPS towards a people-centred policing model.

The centrality of the people in this process is self-evident, as it provides legitimacy to its outcomes and enriches the actual quality of such outcomes.

A forward-looking strategy to diminish the devastating effects of crime on our society and its most vulnerable members requires a leadership that embraces and personifies the vision of the NCPS. 

Without elevating anyone to the status of virtuous icon, it is ironic that people such as Vearey, who transformed community policing in Mitchells Plain, and Jacobs, who started to create a semblance of stability and integrity in the management of Crime Intelligence, are precisely the sort of leadership the SAPS needs. 

And yet they are being hounded by others unable to credibly claim either such achievements or commitment to the ideal of a transformed police service. 

The silence of the ANC on this signifies the defeat of the progressive ideal within the ANC on the one hand, and the failure of strategy by the executive on the other.

At the operational level, no policing approach intended to challenge organised crime and the pandemic of violence can succeed without an effective Crime Intelligence capability. 

Crime Intelligence serves as the SAPS’s sense-making capability and its mandate includes the investigation and research of policing and its effect on society, the strategic impact of policing failures and the effect of poor leadership on the state’s ability to deliver effective policing. 

‘From its under-appreciated apex achievements in neutralising political violence in KZN, stabilising the taxi violence situation in the Western Cape, neutralising the right-wing threat and eliminating urban terrorism in Cape Town, Crime Intelligence now represents a shadow of its former self.’

The division therefore plays a key role in any effort to renew the approaches to policing that are so necessary.

The years of Crime Intelligence functioning as a criminal enterprise have bloated the organisation in numbers and resources while paradoxically diminishing its capability. 

From its underappreciated apex achievements in neutralising political violence in KZN, stabilising the taxi violence situation in the Western Cape, neutralising the right-wing threat and eliminating urban terrorism in Cape Town, it now represents a shadow of its former self. 

This bigger, more resourced Crime Intelligence has lost the ability to produce intelligence and has become a factional political instrument that co-exists with a criminal clique that has seen its secret account as a self-enrichment kitty.

How then do we make sense of the forced removal of the divisional head brought in to clean house, and evidently making progress in doing so? 

Is it a case of Gramsci’s, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”?

Maybe we must take Gramsci’s advice that in the midst of the crisis and its morbid symptoms, highly favourable conditions are being created for an unprecedented expansion of the possibility of change. 

The need for this change, the ability to engage the people in such a process, and the embryonic presence of capable leadership all suggest the real possibility of a people-centred and transformative policing strategy. DM

David Africa is executive director of the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis, a progressive South African think tank and National Security capability development consultancy. Africa has worked in counter-terrorism, intelligence and National Security strategy since 1995.

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  • Agreed. Policing in SA has never been people-centred. The police are the last point of call of the empowered and the first weapon of a destructively-fascist agenda. SAPS is clearly captured and counter-useful to purpose – so why throw resources at reforming what’s dead beyond resuscitation?

    • I joined in 1991 and left it at the end of 2108.Not once did I take a bribe.I did my work.I had lots of corrupt cops locked up,a couple by me.Corrupters are protected.Discipline gone,accountability gone,training poor.Is there enough good people to turn this around?

  • Any serious attempt to reform the SAPS will draw huge opposition from entrenched leaders inside the organisation, and an array of political opportunists. It will need a thorough transformation from top to bottom, led by knowledgeable and tough managers, backed 100% by the government. A lot to ask.

  • A strong police force makes corruption and theft os state resources do much more difficult. Not good for Ace and his brothers in arms.

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