Myth of a single police service

2012-03-31 12:03

Buried at the back of the new ANC discussion document on “peace and stability” is a brief section under the heading “single police service”.

This discusses the 2007 resolution that “the constitutional imperative that there be a single police service should be implemented”.

The idea contained in this resolution is of course essentially a myth. It originated from the period of heightened contestation over the leadership of the ANC following the conviction of Schabir Shaik and the dismissal of Jacob Zuma as deputy president by Thabo Mbeki in June 2005.

The Scorpions, who had successfully investigated the case against Shaik, were now carrying forward the investigation against Zuma.

The problem that Zuma’s supporters faced was that outside their ranks, the Scorpions enjoyed very high levels of credibility and support.

The myth that there was an urgent “constitutional imperative” which required that the Scorpions be dissolved, was therefore manufactured.

The Constitutional provisions in question are a bit confusing on a first reading. But it is clear the myth is based on a selective reading of the Constitution.

Reference is made to a “single police service” as well as a single defence force in Section 199(1). But Section 199(2) provides that the defence force “is the only lawful military force in the republic” while there is no such statement in relation to the police.

Instead, Section 199(3) and Section 206(7) provide for “other armed organisations or services” and “municipal police services” to be established by national legislation.

The “national police service” referred to in section 205(1) is clearly distinct from the “municipal police services”.

At one point the authors acknowledge that some police services “are not meant to be part of the national police service”.

A second resolution, directly connected to the first, is also discussed in the paper.

“The municipal, metro and traffic police should be placed under the command and control of the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service, as a force multiplier” the resolution says.

The document puts forward five practical proposals to implement the latter resolution.

The only one that speaks to centralising control over the municipal police departments is the proposal to “involve the national commissioner in appointing metro chiefs”.

This falls far short of creating a single police service. And even the motivation for it is flimsy. The document states that the principal concern that should guide the ANC on this is “maximising our capacity for effective and efficient policing”.

But what policing in South Africa needs in order to be effective is adaptability and responsiveness. This is not something that will be served by further centralising control over police agencies.

The total complement of personnel under the control of the national commissioner, if one includes police officers, reservists and administrative staff, is in the region of 260 000 people.

No nation comparable in population to South Africa has a police service that is anywhere near this in size.

The government has been unable to appoint a national commissioner who has been able to exercise his powers in a credible way.

The previous commissioner is currently in prison serving a sentence for corruption, while the current incumbent is suspended and facing an inquiry into his suitability to hold office.

But it is this office that the resolutions envisage should be given even greater power.

Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean that even the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, responsible for investigating allegations of serious crimes by the police, should be placed under the SAPS national commissioner.

The great tragedy of the destruction of the Scorpions was that it did nothing to resolve the problem of alleged political manipulation.

The creation of the Hawks centralised control of all criminal investigations under the national commissioner of the SAPS. This compounded the risk of such manipulation.

Because it is a hostage to the myth, the ANC is likely to be restricted to a narrow political logic in giving effect to the Constitutional Court’s 2011 Glenister judgment.

This is reflected in the bill currently before Parliament which retains the Hawks within the SAPS, rather than making use of the opportunity to create a properly independent investigative mechanism.

This serves as an obstacle to the real implications of the Scorpions saga, the need to buttress criminal justice institutions against political interference.

This in turn serves the interests of those in positions of power who need to be able to prevent their involvement in corrupt activities from being exposed.

» Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing, crime and criminal justice

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