South Africa


Crisis deepens as urgent police reform reports gather dust in South Africa

Crisis deepens as urgent police reform reports gather dust in South Africa
According to Gallup’s 2019 global Law and Order Index, South Africa scored fifth lowest out of 142 countries, with only Liberia, Gabon, Venezuela and Afghanistan having fared worse. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Despite a deep crisis, police leaders show no sign of acting on the many official recommendations available to them. 

First published by ISS Today

Johan Burger, Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.

Pressure from the public and political opposition is growing, but police reform in South Africa is unlikely to happen anytime soon. An attempt in May by Parliament’s Portfolio Committee to discuss changes needed to ‘fix’ the South African Police Service (SAPS) was cancelled at short notice, with no reasons given.

More telling is the number of official reports in the past decade highlighting key challenges and presenting practical options to improve policing. These include the National Development Plan (2012), Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry Report (2014), Marikana Commission of Inquiry Report (2015), White Paper on Policing (2016), State of Democratic Policing Report (2017) and more recently, the Panel of Experts Report on Policing and Crowd Management (2018). 

These apparently lie gathering dust with no independent verification of whether their recommendations have been implemented, and if so, to what effect. Meanwhile, the SAPS faces an ever-deepening crisis. 

Reports on internal battles in the SAPS’ top leadership and the underlying weaknesses that characterise the police are prevalent. Since the “serial crises of top management” were first identified by the National Planning Commission in 2012, many functions of the SAPS have deteriorated. 

Since then too, serious, violent and organised crime has escalated, as evidenced by the 37% increase in murder and 43% rise in armed robberies. According to Gallup’s 2019 global Law and Order Index, South Africa scored fifth lowest out of 142 countries. Only Liberia, Gabon, Venezuela and Afghanistan fared worse.

According to Yale Law School’s Dr Monica Bell, meaningful and effective police reform requires accurately identifying the “theory of the policing crisis and its solutions”. The extent of the crises in the SAPS is well documented, but a lack of information means we don’t know whether the recommendations are adequate for reform of policing in South Africa.

Finding a universally accepted definition of “police reform” can be difficult. But a committed group of experts officially appointed for this purpose could agree on a common understanding in the South African context. 

Resistance to change would probably come from within the SAPS itself. Police organisational cultures are not traditionally open to change. And concerns relating to performance assessments and accountability, and the impact of these on career prospects, no doubt also dampen police enthusiasm for reform. 

Given the extent to which top SAPS leadership is part of the crisis, the reform process must include authoritative parties from outside. Of course, carefully selected untainted SAPS members would participate in such a government-led initiative that should also involve suitably qualified people from various sectors. 

The National Development Plan indicates how this could be done. It recommends a National Police Board with multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary expertise to set standards for police recruitment, selection, appointment and promotion.

Ultimately, police reform is about improving effectiveness. In diverse and democratic contexts, achieving this is more likely when the police have attained an acceptable level of public legitimacy. Legitimacy, in turn, is reliant on public trust and confidence in law enforcement. This is probably the greatest challenge to any police reform process. “Very few reforms will ‘stick’ unless a foundation of community trust is established,” says Professor Laurie Robinson from George Mason University.

An article in the Association for Psychological Science journal defines legitimacy broadly as “the belief among people in a society that those in power deserve to rule and make decisions influencing the lives of others”. On policing more specifically, legitimacy is described as “the judgments of ordinary people about the authority of the police to make discretionary decisions with respect to enforcing the law and maintaining social order.”

In a 2019 paper on police reform, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) explained that the process “aims to transform the values, policies and practices of police organisations so that they can perform their duties with respect for democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.” 

The paper says there’s no single model for police reform and that every reform process must reflect its own context. However, it does recognise two core goals common to all such endeavours: “improving police capacity and effectiveness, and improving the integrity and accountability of the police.”

But more importantly, on the question of how to carry out police reforms, the DCAF paper says it requires coordination between multiple stakeholders. Government should initiate and actively support the effort and encourage other stakeholders to do the same. 

The process should also include consultation with and involvement of oversight institutions, civil society organisations and the public. And, as Dr Andrew Faull of the Institute for Security Studies argues, strong leadership and the involvement of skilled technocrats will be crucial for the success of such a reform process. 

Improving policing will inevitably require associated interventions in other parts of the criminal justice system. President Cyril Ramaphosa has already taken decisive steps to strengthen the National Prosecuting Authority, starting with the appointment of prosecutions head Advocate Shamila Batohi, followed by other senior staff. However, the NPA’s ability to establish the rule of law and public safety depends almost entirely on the cases sent to it by the police. 

Ramaphosa should take a strong stand to kick-start the reform process in the SAPS. It will undoubtedly be a difficult and time-consuming process but must be done without further delay. The safety and well-being of 60 million people living in South Africa depend on it. DM

Johan Burger, Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    This is a huge problem,1st your logistics must be the backup that it is supposed to be, no shortages of ammunition,vehicles,servicing of vehicles must be done so that no backlog is created, forensic must always have enough kits.Fire arm inspections daily,with a report, filed.Accountability for every station commander,with severe consequences if protocols are not adhered to.Detective courses no backlog.Branch commanders of every detective branch to make sure dockets are solved, not filed,progress reports daily by detectives.Stop the abundant meetings.More commissioned officers out on the streets,not only non commissioned officers to make arrests.Human resources to solve members complaints and issues faster.Those with serious corruption allegations against them to be prioritized.Update of man power needed per town, city or rural area,not relying on out dated census stats of number of inhabitants in a area.Prioritising hot spots getting additional man power,for example kleinmond and hermanus and gansbaai, re abalone poaching.A simplified performance appraisal, the PEP system is a joke as it is rushed through,no time for laborious time consuming red tape administration that steal hours out of every day.Discipline is essential,if policing is to be productive.Pay overtime for detectives and members on the ground.Allocating of budget priorities to be appraised.Make vip protection smaller unit.Liassion with public representatives must be improved.Yoo,just a few of the issues.

  • Charles Parr says:

    Just more evidence of government and SAPS shenanigans. It’s time for this president to take action to get this country working properly instead of looking after the ANC hierarchy.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    First step should be to fire the incumbent the ‘honourable’ Cele, Minister of Brutality.

  • John Bestwick says:

    Police leaders = oxymoron. Sitole and Cele must go along with Xaba and Vuma and many others.

  • Jonathan Deal says:

    The state of the police represents the manifestation of the ideology of the ANC. It cannot be blamed on previous governments, COVID19 or any other (in)convenient cause. There is simply no one in the ruling party with the guts to drive and sustain the required changes. Every now and then a small concession will bring a little progress and the rallying critics will relax, and the whole cycle will start afresh.

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