Institutional Watch

SAPS faces long, hard road to reconquer credibility

Commissioner Riah Phiyega
Commisioner Riah Phiyega.jpg

In the transition to democracy in South Africa the South African Police Service as key institution of state has fallen victim of mismanagement and political interference.

In a constitutional democracy it is the responsibility of the state, and government of the day, to ensure a save and stable socio-economic environment for citizens to go about their daily lives in peace and harmony.

The constitution provides for a number of key state institutions to facilitate the discharge of this duty in an effective, sustainable and even-handed way.

As South Africa entered a second phase of its transition to a ‘normalised’ democracy, a number of these institutions have come under strain. None more so than the SAPS, which can be regarded as a vital frontline institution.

It has reached a stage where the SAPS is in dire need of a turnaround strategy if South Africa is to stay a stable state.

Failure or negligence is non-negotiable

Unfortunately, despite scores of dedicated, professional policemen and women, the SAPS is failing in its constitutional responsibility, with devastating consequences.

The message is loud and clear – the SAPS urgently requires a successful turnaround strategy, otherwise the country runs the risk of sinking into anarchy with mob justice prevailing.

There are many causes for the decline of SAPS and it did not happen overnight.

It is incomprehensible why so little has been done by those in power to arrest the decay.

The net result witnessed now is a populace who has not only has lost trust in and respect for the police, but are also fearful of them.

Criminals, on the other hand, have become more brazen and show less fear when confronted. This is illustrated by the increasing number of murdered police officers.

So far this year more than seventy police officers have been killed by criminals, prompting the police and prison union POPCRU to discourage young people from joining the SAPS, saying they will be placing their lives at risk.

There is general consensus that much of the decline and paralysis experienced by the SAPS could be linked to political interference.

An expert on police matters even ventured to conclude that political leaders have not recognised policing as an important profession that requires high levels of skill and integrity.

This might be a harsh judgement, but is endorsed by the appointment of the last three police commissioners. All of them political appointments, and all three disastrous.

Lack of policing experience and a ‘feel’ for a highly demanding job, left them unsuited and unprepared for challenge:

  • Jackie Selebi, protégé of former president Thabo Mbeki left his office disgraced and died a convicted criminal;
  • President Zuma’s first appointment, Bheki Cele, seemed to think the job simply required tough talk. A ‘maximum force’ doctrine took root, military ranks were reintroduced and ‘shoot to kill’ political rhetoric became commonplace in the mistaken belief it would scare off criminals and arrest South Africa’s soaring crime rate. Cele also vacated his post in disgrace, fired by the president, following a board of inquiry that found he had acted unlawfully in a R1.7 billion police headquarter lease deal; and
  • On the watch of his replacement, Riah Phiyega, the Marikana tragedy occurred. She is now fighting to remain in her post, while she also stands accused of a litany of misdemeanours, including perjury, fraud, misconduct and wasteful expenditure. Her political masters have turned on her and the count-down to her replacement has in all probability already begun.

SAPS public image taking a beating                                                                                  

The process of country’s most senior police officers vacating their offices in disgrace and other senior police officers slugging it out in court battles with unmistakable  political undertones, has caused irreparable damage.

Abusing the SAPS in efforts to obtain the upper hand in frequent power struggles and faction fighting, now a trademark of the rapidly fracturing Tripartite Alliance, is also not helping to restore the image and cohesion in SAPS.

The net effect of persistent confusion, rivalry and innuendos in the higher echelons of SAPS is telling on morale and discipline. It cannot be divorced from the extraordinary high levels of corruption and brutality committed by police officers.

It is an indictment against the SAPS management and political leadership when a police service gains notoriety for brutality against those it is supposed to serve and protect.

The Sunday Times on 15 November 2015 carried an exposé on police brutality, concluding it has spiralled out of control, with torture and alleged executions becoming commonplace.

According to this report almost all categories of police brutality are increasing. Torture is up by 86%. “But human rights lawyers and researchers interviewed say this is the tip of the iceberg because most victims are too afraid to report the crime and torture is often classified as assault.”

Official statistics reveal that in the past year police killed 423 people; 244 others died in custody, 3711 were assaulted and 145 tortured.

Statistics in 2013 showed that total civil claims against the police for abuses, including wrongful arrests and destruction of property, more than doubled since 2011 to R14.7 billion. In 2014 it totalled R9.5 billion.

According to statistics made public in 2013, it was  found that 1 448 police officers have criminal records for serious crimes ranging from murder and attempted murder to rape, assault, corruption, theft, robbery, house-breaking, drug trafficking, domestic violence and aiding escapees.

Among these were a major-general, ten brigadiers, 21 colonels, ten majors, 43 lieutenant-colonels, 163 captains, 84 lieutenants and 716 warrant officers.

About 8 000 more have criminal records for other offences including driving under the influence of alcohol, and almost 9 000 others are presently facing criminal charges.

Some crime researchers and academics also conclude that, “most police officers involved in criminality are not being held accountable” and “numerous indicators suggest a lack of political will on the part of the SAPS and government as a whole in taking steps to counter police corruption”.

Corruption at all levels in SAPS is taking on catastrophic proportions.

A survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in 2011 found two-thirds of South Africans believe the most corrupt government officials are in the SAPS, followed by the Department of Home Affairs. It is safe to say the situation has not changed since.

Less than half of South Africans trust the SAPS and many fear them and view the SAPS as a service whose members do not serve and protect the community, but rather one whose members force their will on others and are at war with the very community they are supposed to serve.

A survey conducted in 2012 found that 35% of South Africans interviewed admitted to being “scared of the police”. In poorer communities this increased to 40%.

Under current conditions public mistrust of the police will remain, which will in turn limit the SAPS’s ability to reduce crime.

A way out

There is, however, a way out. Most experts are in agreement that fixing the SAPS must start with implementing the recommendations of the National Development Plan as it pertains to policing and the appointment of a police commissioner who is a true and impeccable police officer to allow the many honest and skilled police officers to start rebuilding the credibility of the SAPS.

But this will require political will and therein lies the rub of the green.

As things stand the perceptions around SAPS are becoming a threat to the stability of the state, rather than them being the defenders of it.

                                                                                                                                                                                        by Garth Cilliers

Also read: Intelligence Report

                    SA intelligence community caught in political conundrum

                    South Africa needs a ‘Modi moment’

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