Unless this government fixes SAPS, it won’t meet its other objectives

We need a new approach to policing from Minister Senzo Mchunu

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Simply throwing more money at the police force and adding more officers won’t be enough to improve policing, say the authors. Archive photo: Ashraf Hendricks

The appointment of Senzo Mchunu as Minister of Police has generally been greeted with enthusiasm. Considering that his term as Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation is widely regarded in a positive light, there is room for optimism.

But his task as Minister of Police is likely to be more challenging.

Substantial amounts of public money have been invested in the South African Police Service (SAPS) - over R113-billion in the current financial year which is expected to rise to over R124-billion in 2025/26. But questions about how to actually improve the service have been neglected. The assumption repeatedly and mistakenly made is that increasing the budget, and hiring more police officials, will be sufficient to improve its performance.

SAPS has deteriorated against many of its own performance indicators, or stagnated. For example, the number of murders solved by SAPS has declined from 31% in 2011/12 to just over 12% in 2022/23. In 2021, surveys found that about three out of four people had little or no trust in the police.

In the absence of a clear strategy for improving the performance of SAPS, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has put forward a set of eleven recommendations (see below) on how to strengthen this crucial organisation. The recommendations were launched at a seminar at the ISS on 27 June, addressed by SAPS National Commissioner, Fannie Masemola.

In addition to a dedicated focus on reducing firearm crime and violence, the ISS proposes ten other measures, focused on strategic leverage points, intended to move the SAPS forward, improving both its effectiveness and public trust in the organisation.

In considering the ISS recommendations, it is worthwhile to note the complex challenges facing the government of national unity. The GNU ‘statement of intent’, that has now been signed by ten political parties, highlights the fact that South Africa, and the South African government, face multiple urgent, but complex, problems.

The ‘basic minimum programme’ that the parties have agreed to, includes commitments to prioritise several critical issues, from promoting ‘rapid, inclusive and sustainable economic growth’ and tackling poverty, food insecurity and the high cost of living, to stabilising local government, improving health care and creating a professional, corruption-free public service.

Each of these issues may be seen as representative of, or linked to, a type of crisis, whether this is the crisis of joblessness, poor education outcomes, hunger, or dysfunctional local governments. These problems are interdependent and reinforcing.

Strengthening law enforcement agencies, of which the SAPS is the largest and most important, is included as one of these priorities. But does this mean that the issue will be treated with sufficient urgency? Without notably improving SAPS impact on public safety, most of the other priorities will be difficult to achieve.

From his work as Minister of Water and Sanitation, Minister Mchunu will be familiar with the impact of corruption and infrastructure theft, on water and sanitation provision. This is one illustration of how South Africa’s ability to respond to its challenges depends, in part, on substantially improving its capacity to respond to crime.

High levels of violence and other crime have become normalised. More affluent people and businesses have been able to better adapt to protect themselves against crime and its impact This is seen in the massive investment in private security services, security measures at homes and offices, and insurance to ensure compensation for victims to crime.

Protecting themselves against crime has therefore imposed a substantial financial burden on the elite and middle class. But the impact and consequences for less affluent people are qualitatively different. It is in working class and poorer communities that rates of murder and rape are at their highest, and where ordinary people face the daily risk of robbery, whether from armed intruders at homes, on the streets, or (for those who have them) in their cars.

Last year’s World Bank report on the impact of crime on the South African economy highlights the fact that both formal and informal businesses are impacted by crime. But while larger businesses can invest in security services and measures, “very few informal businesses can afford to protect themselves—only about 1 percent spend money on security”.

The report states that, in the informal sector ‘between 10 and 30 percent of potential entrepreneurs do not start or invest in a business because of crime. In poorer areas, crime seems to have the worst impact on the smallest and most successful entrepreneurs, which creates a significant barrier both to the creation of new businesses and to their formalization. In townships such as Diepsloot and Khayelitsha, crime was the most reported constraint on doing business. This particularly affects women entrepreneurs because of their vulnerability to violence, which makes them less likely to operate in areas perceived as dangerous.”

In addition to the burden of crime in terms of death, injury and trauma, crime therefore reinforces economic exclusion and blocks efforts to address entrenched racialised inequality.

South Africa’s current murder rate is one of the highest in the world with 27,442 murders recorded by SAPS in 2022/23. Crime and violence are estimated by the World Bank to cost the economy at least 10% of gross domestic product. They place a heavy burden not only on businesses and members of the public but on the health care system, schools, government resources and infrastructure at national, provincial and local levels.

The SAPS budget indicates that policing has consistently been treated by the government as one of its key expenses. Nevertheless, the need for measures to strengthen the SAPS have not at any point been treated as a critical priority on which the potential effectiveness of other government initiatives depends.

ISS work on how to strengthen the SAPS over recent years reveals that several aspects of policing need fixing. These range from recruitment, selection and training, to community partnerships, the design of performance indicators, key characteristics of organisational culture and the use of technology. The long list of problems currently facing the SAPS cannot be fixed all at once, or in a piecemeal fashion.

As the ISS recommendations motivate, to respond to the current multifaceted crime crisis, there needs to be a programme of purposeful and strategic measures to strengthen the SAPS and its impact on public safety. What is needed is a well-thought through set of programmatic steps, guided by an understanding of critical strategic “leverage” points.

It is to be hoped that Minister Mchunu will be able to lead a thoughtful response to the crime crisis, with SAPS organisational reform at its heart. The approach must be implemented carefully and purposely over the five years of the new administration. Highly visible and politically driven approaches such as the remilitarization of the police or over-reliance on high visibility operations, resulting in hundreds of thousands of arrests but with no impact on crime, must be rejected. The depth and range of South Africa’s crises can only be addressed once the SAPS are able to measurably improve public safety.

As Minister Mchunu would well know, without water for drinking it is not possible for people to survive. But likewise, our society’s ability to address the wide range of challenges that it faces depends critically on being able to enjoy reasonable levels of safety.

David Bruce is a researcher specializing in policing and an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) consultant. Gareth Newham is the head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the ISS.

11 ways to strengthen SAPS

On 27 June, at a seminar in Pretoria, the Institute for Security Studies released recommendations for the Government of National Unity on how to strengthen the SAPS.

The 11 ISS proposals are:

  • Strategic direction from the police minister on how to professionalise SAPS – the Minister of Police should ensure that practical and focused strategic measures are implemented to strengthen SAPS;
  • Strengthen SAPS leadership and management – including an effective executive management system to improve leadership decision making;
  • Build a more positive and professional police identity – to ensure that SAPS members have pride in SAPS and are respected by members of the public;
  • Reduce murder by focusing on firearm violence – mapping firearm-related crime and using police resources to reduce it in a focused way;
  • Strengthen crime investigation and rationalise other police capabilities – making sure that the police budget is used in the best way to ensure that the SAPS has the policing capabilities that are most essential;
  • Improve public trust in SAPS by reducing police corruption and criminality – strengthening the investigation of police corruption and ensuring that allegations of serious crime are addressed in disciplinary hearings that involve trained dedicated disciplinary officials;
  • Update the SAPS Act – the SAPS Act, passed in 1995, must be amended to enable SAPS to function effectively;
  • Get better information technology and cybersecurity capabilities, and more effective crime data analysis – a strategic approach is needed to enable SAPS to use information and other technology effectively;
  • Establish a centre of excellence on data analysis to support evidence-based policing – to enable SAPS to use data on crime and policing better;
  • Modernise SAPS recruitment and training – ensure consistent and reliable recruitment and training and recruiting personnel who are better equipped to perform skilled investigation and other policing roles; and
  • Coordinate various policing efforts for maximum effect – optimising collaboration with metro police, private security and other structures involved in policing.
TOPICS:  Policing

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