SAPS IN CRISIS
‘A catastrophe’ – Minister Bheki Cele describes shocking work conditions for SA police
Parliament has heard that police are trying to perform their duties in appalling conditions. Some of the premises from which they work have had the electricity cut off. Others are in an advanced state of neglect.
An escalating crisis in the form of buildings that are unfit to work in, is threatening the already shaky stability of the South African Police Service (SAPS), with some officers even forced to work from home.
The SAPS has been divided by infighting and criminality among cops, and now faces more literal cracks which no one in the government seems to be trying to paper over.
On Wednesday, 18 May, the sorry situation was laid bare in a portfolio committee on police meeting in Parliament.
Certain issues relating to SAPS workspaces have previously been raised, but the broader picture that emerged this week was especially disturbing.
The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure is the custodian of several properties used by the SAPS, and department representatives were at Wednesday’s meeting.
While plans were made to urgently address the problems, some at the meeting pointed out that years had gone by with little more than lip service paid to situations that continued to deteriorate.
Both Police Minister Bheki Cele and National Police Commissioner Fannie Masemola, who is in his second month as the country’s top cop, seemed at their wits’ end.
Police ministry top brass have no office
Cele said that on 17 May 2022 he had a “big meeting” with a team that was dealing with issues in the Western Cape.
This meeting was held in his home and, he said, the drinks served to the attendees came out of his personal budget.
“There is an old office, Wachthuis, which I’m told has no electricity, which has been shut down on notice and all that… which has been condemned and all,” Cele said.
“Police have no place to work – from the very highest office of the police.”
The Wachthuis building, he said, had been condemned in 2010.
In February 2022, the SAPS issued a statement about the building – leased by Public Works – describing it as the “administrative headquarters” of the police and saying “services are continuing as normal” following reports that the City of Tshwane had disconnected utility services over unpaid bills.
Cele’s words this week, however, suggest that the situation is not as stable as that statement claimed.
Rotting and flooding
Cele also brought up the matter of the Umlazi police station, which he said was “rotting”, and a laboratory in Amanzimtoti that had flooded four times, affecting equipment and operations.
He said that a decade ago, the Public Works Department was meant to have built another laboratory in Pinetown, but this never went ahead. It was then meant to have built one in Durban central, but this was also yet to happen.
Cele said there were problems with laboratory backlogs, for which the SAPS was criticised, but that certain issues were out of its hands.
“It’s a frustration… you live with that… you’re carrying sins that are not yours… Can’t somebody do anything for us?” he asked.
Masemola too gave some examples of what police officers were up against.
Cops working from a construction site
A police station in Bloemfontein had been under construction for more than five years.
“Police members are working in a construction site where there is dust… the renovation is just not finished,” he said.
Masemola also said that in the Free State, members of the police’s protection and services division had been without an office for more than two years.
He warned that when an audit was done, “we’re definitely going to be in trouble”, because members were working from home.
Police stations owned by municipalities posed another problem, Masemola said, because the SAPS could not simply proceed with maintaining these, and “day-to-day they’re going derelict”.
Firearm epicentre packed in boxes
Another issue raised at this week’s meeting was the Central Firearms Register saga.
About three months ago, Daily Maverick reported on how the register – which, according to the police’s 2020/21 annual report, was meant to “ensure effective control over small arms and light weapons” in and across South Africa’s border – was largely based at the Veritas building in Tshwane.
The building was declared unfit for human occupation several years ago.
The Central Firearms Register was meant to have relocated to Telkom Towers in Pretoria’s CBD. However, as Daily Maverick has reported, there were problems in the building, including water leaks in the basement.
Cele said this week that “billions” had been spent on the Telkom Towers move, yet “we still don’t have a place to work”.
Portfolio committee on police chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson said the Central Firearms Register was “now packed in boxes because they do not have accommodation”.
A catastrophic mess
Describing the overall situation regarding SAPS premises, she said: “It is more than a mess – it’s a catastrophe, it’s a disaster, and we owe it to South Africans to sort this out as soon as possible. We cannot fight crime if we have no bases from which to fight crime.”
Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille also had a dire prognosis: “I don’t know how to describe it except to say that this is a mess.”
She said she would get external auditors of the department to appoint an independent service provider to assess all the documents that were placed before the meeting in Parliament.
“I’m really shocked by what I’m hearing and seeing today, and the extent of the problem,” said De Lille.
Construction mafias and cash crunches
A police presentation to the meeting in Parliament this week showed that it had an infrastructure development plan, but that there were challenges in rolling it out.
These included poorly performing contractors, sometimes involving yearslong procedures between the SAPS and contractors when it came to disputes.
There were also “interference and work stoppages by small business forums and construction mafias”.
The Department of Public Works’ presentation said it experienced challenges including underperforming contractors, contractors facing cash flow problems, as well as “community unrest, strikes and lockouts”. DM