South Africa

ISS TODAY

Devolution of policing powers in SA municipalities could provide greater scope for combatting crime

Devolution of policing powers in SA municipalities could provide greater scope for combatting crime
The South African Police Service (SAPS) outside the Cape Town Magistrates Court on 3 May 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Many local governments in South Africa are dysfunctional, but some could drive innovation in fighting crime.

With murder and other crimes on the rise in South Africa, better responses to violence and crime are urgently needed. Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis believes a step in this direction is to devolve more law enforcement powers to local government. He is calling for Police Minister Bheki Cele to devolve such functions to the city administration. 

Cape Town has focused on strengthening its capacity to address crime. It has invested in new technology to optimise responses to crime and other crises by its law enforcement personnel and emergency services. A recent analysis by Jean Redpath, Senior Researcher at the University of the Western Cape’s Dullah Omar Institute, suggests that a Cape Town-based initiative involving the targeted deployment of new policing personnel reduces murder in parts of the city.

Hill-Lewis wants Cape Town’s Metro Police to be given powers to investigate crime. He has also requested that the metropolitan government be granted more authority to determine policing priorities in the city. 

Some reorganisation of South Africa’s policing system is clearly desirable, especially if this can be done in a manner compatible with the country’s constitution. 

Government agencies responsible for service delivery typically emphasise the need for standardised systems and find it difficult to innovate. The size and complexity of the South African Police Service (SAPS), and weaknesses in government policy direction on policing have also fed into the stagnation of general law enforcement. 

Section 205(1) of the constitution says that the SAPS may be “structured to function” not only in the national and provincial spheres of government but also in the local sphere. This implies that municipalities’ policing-related powers could be expanded if this is provided for in legislation.

A recent review on the future of policing in England and Wales motivates for a combination of centralised and decentralised policing. Certain functions, such as investigating organised crime syndicates, should be run centrally. But “local policing” can better “collaborate with other local public services in order to tackle complex public safety problems,” provide responsive policing that improves public confidence, and create space for innovation.

The South African government’s new Integrated Crime and Violence Prevention Strategy calls for municipal managers to establish capacity for preventing crime and violence. But to apply the problem-oriented approaches needed, municipalities should have more significant influence over policing. This will enable them to deliver police responses to crime-related problems that are coordinated with other municipal services. 

Currently, SAPS strategies against crime are primarily determined by head office in Pretoria. Police planners in the national office are under no obligation to take the perspectives of metropolitan governments, or other municipalities, into account. 


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There are wide disparities between local governments in South Africa, with many in a chronic state of dysfunction. This means a one-size-fits-all approach to local government and policing is neither desirable nor required. Section 156 of the constitution and provisions of the SAPS Act recognise that the expansion of policing functions to cities and towns should consider their capacity to exercise them. 

A new report released this week by the Institute for Security Studies and the South African Local Government Association motivates for considering the devolution of policing powers to metropolitan government level. The report recommends that “in line with Section 205(1), structures and systems should be established to enable consolidated coordination of SAPS law enforcement and crime prevention activities in metropolitan areas.” 

Such structures should ensure that responses to violence and crime are strategically focused, including coordinating “SAPS activities in metropolitan areas with those of metro police and other metropolitan government personnel involved in law enforcement,” the report says.

If municipalities were given greater policing powers, this could be subject to the proviso that only those conforming to minimum criteria are eligible. Clean municipal audits for a minimum of five years might be one criterion. To minimise political abuse of the police, provision should be made for a high level of transparency on directives given to police by local governments. 

The report also suggests that policing powers exercised by metropolitan governments be subsidiary powers, carried out in a manner compatible with national policing priorities determined by the police minister.

Government must give greater attention to how municipalities — particularly those that are run more effectively — can take on new functions that help them deal with crime and violence. Giving selected metros more authority over policing could expand their scope for innovation and lesson learning. This, in turn, may help get South Africa’s policing system out of the rut it’s currently in. 

Cape Town — which has proven its ability to develop strategic and collaborative approaches to addressing crime — is one place where innovation and adaptation seem possible. Lessons learnt there, and in other municipalities that try new methods, could be incorporated into broader crime prevention strategies. DM

David Bruce, Independent Researcher and Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

Research for this article is funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

First published by ISS Today.

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  • John Cartwright says:

    Agreed, but even without increased powers, local law enforcement can make more effective use of their special strength – that is, their localness. They should concentrate on problemsolving, preventive policing – their proper and most effective role is to complement SAPS, not to be SAPS Lite.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The crucial problem as I learnt, is the functionality of the magistrates courts that hear a lot of cases and are mostly at the coal face of interaction with communities. The dysfunctionality and corruption in these courts is legendary and you have to experience it to understand it. These courts have a special court like Court 12 in Protea Magistrate Court for perpetual postponements and abuse of the public for basically no reasons. You then wonder where is speedy justice. In addition, Protea has serious water problems that close the court for days and now the black outs have added to the problem with all courts not working in Soweto and Roodepoort during Eskom black outs. You then ask where is this fellow called Ronald Lamola. Let alone the skills and capacity of magistrates on the family disputes and gender based violence as well as the capacity of the prosecutors. The mess in the lower courts is a very huge problem in the country let alone police incompetence visited by Cele in this country. The waiting prisoner population as a result of unjustifiable postponements is a very serious problem and the Magistrates Commission seems to be doing nothing.

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