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Is South Africa’s Police Force all bark and no bite?

Is South Africas Police Force all bark and no bite

Is South Africa’s Police Force all bark and no bite?

Depending on which report you read, South Africa has either the third or sixth highest crime rates in the world in 2023.

Either way, it’s pretty shocking.    

We rank worse than many countries associated with violent drug cartels, such as Mexico and Colombia.

We’re even more dangerous than Afghanistan.

On top of that, three of our cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban – find themselves in the Top 6 list of global cities with the highest crime rates.

Of all the crimes considered when compiling these statistics, murder is one of the most significant. Even our own South African Police Service (SAPS) statistics for April to September 2022 indicate the 2022/23 annual murder rate may be over 44 murders per 100 000 people, meaning South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

To put that in context, more people are killed annually in South Africa than in Iraq, Somalia, or Russia, to name a few.

But even if we forget violent crime for a second (if only that were, in fact, possible), we’re still faced with the uncomfortable truth that South Africa also has the highest reported rate of economic crime in the world.

The Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey, released by PwC on Feb. 27, 2023, found that South Africa’s rate of 77% was consistently much higher than the global rate of 49%.

In the light of all this, I have two questions:

  1. What on earth is going on?

  2. Where the hell are the police?

To help answer both of these, please indulge me here for a second and Google “What is a folly?”

As you read through the search results, you’ll discover it’s variously described as “a building constructed primarily for decoration but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose” or “a small building that appears to have no practical purpose, or the purpose of which appears less important than its striking and unusual design,” or even “[A building with] no purpose other than as an ornament. It has no obvious use, other than to be decorative.”

From where the average South African citizen is currently standing, I think it’s fair to say that the SAPS is the organisational equivalent of an architectural folly – it looks like a police force from the outside but doesn’t really resemble anything purposeful on the inside.

Instead of being the guard dog our country so desperately needs, the SAPS is more like one of those yappy handbag chihuahuas – all bark and absolutely no bite.

If you ask our esteemed Police Minister, Mr Bheki Cele, just why the SAPS is pretty much MIA in South Africa, you’ll likely get an answer that defaults directly to the mantra of many South African civil service departments: “It’s not my fault.”

Recently, for example, when challenged by journalists on the rising crime statistics, and asked for his response to increasingly loud calls for his resignation, Cele blamed our growing population, a lack of recruitment of police personnel, environmental design, and a lack of resources.

He also blamed the public works department for the lack of progress in building new police stations. (Although personally, if there hasn’t been any recruitment of new police officers, I question how useful new police stations are actually going to be).

But surely, as the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele is responsible for addressing these exact issues that he raises as excuses?

Instead, however, you’ll find our camera-loving minister having his photograph taken with members of the Terrible Duchine Kids, a notorious gang known for its alleged involvement in a smorgasbord of criminal activities, including extortion, drug trafficking and murder, among others.

Or putting his expensively-shoed feet firmly in his mouth by saying at a news conference that a woman who was “only” raped once while many of her friends endured multiple attacks was “lucky.”

And while Cele fiddles, South Africa burns – often literally.

The catastrophic riots in KZN and Gauteng in July 2021 were a classic case in point. Thanks to the SAPS’ woeful response, we read report after report of ordinary citizens arming themselves with garden tools, cricket bats and even golf clubs to defend their homes and suburbs against the rioters.

At the time, police portfolio committee chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson blamed budget cuts, which is convenient but not, I suspect, anywhere near the whole story.

The ineffective police response was the inevitable result of years of slipping standards when it comes to SAPS recruitment, development and training.

There are significant issues, for example, with the degree of literacy among police officers. Many are unable to read or write – even in their own mother tongue – meaning they cannot take proper statements from victims or study to better their qualifications and job prospects.

There are also worrying reports of significant numbers of SAPS officers with criminal records.

During a parliamentary question and answer session in April 2019, police minister Bheki Cele said that 4,174 members of the police service had criminal records, including 32 senior managers.

When national police spokesperson, Vish Naidoo, was approached for comment at the time, he said the SAPS was busy taking the fingerprints of all 192 000 police members and checking to see if they had criminal records, but that the process “would take time.”

It seems bizarre to me that this basic background check would not have been carried out prior to enlisting anyone into the SAPS, and I for one have not seen a recent update on the process.

Another huge issue concerns firearms and firearm licences within the SAPS.

A report from Gun Free SA found that the number of firearms that were stolen from, or lost by, South African Police offers rose from 566 in 2020/21 to 715 in 2021/22 – nearly 30% of which are never recovered.

In addition to the guns stolen from the police, over 9 000 firearms are reported stolen or missing every year. Thirty people are murdered with guns in South Africa every single day.

There are also almost daily reports of guns being smuggled into the country with worrying ease – reports show around 24 illegal guns enter the South African market every day.

To top it all, a damning report in the BusinessTech found that hundreds of SAPS members fail their gun competency tests every year. The figures are even worse when it comes to maintenance.

Given everything we read, see and hear, it’s surely not surprising that only 27% of South Africans (according to the Human Sciences Research Council survey in 2022) trust the SAPS to keep them safe.

The figures are even more damning in a police trust indicator survey conducted by Action Society last year. They asked parents, “Are your children safe in South Africa?” Here are the results:

  • 97,39% of parents do not feel it is safe for their children to play in a park or ride a bicycle alone.

  • 93% fear that their children may be kidnapped.

  • Only 13,51% of South African parents teach their children they can trust the police.

  • If something were to happen to their children or if they were in danger, only 6% said they would call the police. Instead, 53% would call on a security company, and 41% would contact their neighbourhood watch.

Ironically, parents are not the only ones relying on the help of security companies.

In recent years, there have been numerous news reports revealing how the SAPS itself is spending millions of Rands every month on private security companies to help them with tasks such as VIP protection that they simply cannot do themselves.

Where does the money come from? The SAPS’ annual budget. And who funds that? We, the taxpayer.

Talking of budgets, there was a slight glimmer of hope recently when Bheki Cele and his team, which included national police commissioner Fani Masemola and other top officials, were told unceremoniously by the portfolio committee that their latest budget would not be approved until they addressed three key issues: the delay on Bills, the impact on the Community Policing Forum (CPF), and the Central Firearms Registry.

Whether this prompts Cele into action, or whether it will even be upheld, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, he continues to stay in his job, despite how badly he does it.

Essentially, this highlights one of the most concerning aspects of this entire hot mess – no one seems to be doing anything to sort it out.

Patricia Morgan-Mashale, a South African Police Service (SAPS) corruption whistleblower, has received death threats and survived two attempts on her life after she exposed massive and high-level corruption within the SAPS. She has yet to receive any of the promised protection from the government and has been in hiding since February. 

“The police wanted the crime intelligence officer to change the contents of the threat assessment because it implemented high-ranking police officers,” she said.

KZN violence monitor, Prof Mary De Haas, says corruption within our law enforcement agencies makes fighting crime almost impossible.

“Crime intelligence is riddled with corruption, and nothing has changed since the Zondo Commission findings – it’s got worse if anything, “she says. “There’s a lack of corporate crime intelligence or crime intelligence dealing with criminality, and we’ve drug dealers working with crime intelligence in KZN.”

This is likely why there has been so little progress in bringing to book the people involved in the assassination of whistle-blower Babita Deokaran, the senior Gauteng Health Department official gunned down outside her home after exposing millions of Rands in fraud and corruption at Thembisa Hospital.

DA MP Evelyn Wilson said recently, “It’s been over a year since Babita Deokaran was gunned down. The matter is still under SIU Investigation and to date, not one of the companies cited in the expose have been blacklisted by the department. [As a result] the corruption continues unabated.”

Former Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter was forced to leave the country in fear of his life after exposing multiple incidents of alleged corruption involving high-ranking government officials.

The SAPS’ lieutenant-general Peter Jacobs confirmed that De Ruyter previously held two meetings with police management in June and July 2022, but that “no specific information containing elements that would enable the SAPS to open criminal investigations” was conveyed during the meetings.

“Reference to criminal activity within and related to Eskom was always generic, and more strategic of content, rather indicating trends,” he said.

So, is anyone who tries to address the catastrophic failings or alleged corrupt practices of members of the SAPS doomed to fail?

Journalist Devi Pillay seems to think so in an article in the Daily Maverick. She writes, “Not only are the police themselves often responsible for violence and criminality, but since 2009, the previous five national police commissioners have all been sanctioned for criminal acts, including fraud, corruption, obstruction of justice, and even murder.

“The SAPS is clearly not currently fit for purpose – it is failing in both crime prevention and detection. Despite commitments from the president to clean up and strengthen law enforcement institutions, there appears to be no real agenda for the reform of the SAPS.”

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime appears to agree. In its Strategic Organised Crime Assessment (released in September 2022), it states, “[The] SAPS remains an institution without strategic direction when it comes to organized crime. It is still committed to a high visibility, low-impact approach that centers on taking down ‘high-flyers’ and making big seizures and large numbers of low-level arrests. This has enmeshed SAPS in a cycle of reward and focus that disincentivizes intelligence, analysis and investigation.

“Promotion is based on stats, and not impact, while there is poor to no training in intelligence or detective capabilities. Although there have been several notable joint initiatives, trust between SAPS and Western law enforcement agencies is patchy. Unless there is a significant improvement in this regard, operations against sophisticated transnational organised crime networks will suffer from a lack of crucial intelligence and high-level operational support.”

So, as always, my question is, what can we do? Is there hope for the SAPS, and can we look forward to an improvement in the way our country is policed?

Bheki Cele himself said recently that, “[We] are hell-bent on restoring the trust deficit that impacts on our overall fight against crime. The organisation has taken up the challenge to rebuild itself and at the same time improve its image and regain the trust in the communities we serve. We need to promote cooperation and ensure that the police fulfil the needs of the community in respect of policing, improve the service of the police to the community, improve transparency and accountability of the SAPS, and promote joint problem-identification and problem-solving.”

Nice words, but whether they will ever translate into tangible action remains to be seen.

The Institute for Security Studies said in its March 2023 report that the “Police can make South Africa safe, but only if they know when, where, how and around whom the most serious harms occur. This requires not only that victims report incidents to the police but that communities, civil society and the private sector support and share as much information with the police as possible. This is only feasible when people trust the police.”

It’s obvious, then, that building and sustaining public trust has to be the first item on the SAPS’ agenda. Anything else is simply papering over the cracks, tackling the symptoms and not the root cause.

The Daily Maverick agrees, saying, “Policing is not rocket science, and effective policing is not difficult if we get the basics right. Our call to Minister Cele is that he drives and champions a relentless process to do just that.”

Hear, hear.