ANALYSIS | Guy Lamb: Will 2022 be the SAPS's watershed year?

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 (Photo by Jacques Stander/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
(Photo by Jacques Stander/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

With declining trust and public confidence in the South African Police Service, it is imperative that the current leadership and governance crises within the police is resolved as a matter of priority, writes Guy Lamb.


The previous two years were gruelling for members of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Over and above the day-to-day crime combatting and prevention activities, South Africa's men and women in blue have been obligated to enforce Covid-19 lockdown regulations. 

Many of the regulations, especially pertaining to access to alcohol, were unpopular, and the police officials were regularly accused of being heavy-handed. For instance, in the 2020/21 financial year, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate considered:

  • 353 cases of deaths caused by police action.
  • 256 incidents of alleged torture by SAPS personnel.
  • 4 228 assaults reportedly perpetrated by the police. 

The performance of the police during the July 2021 riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng was severely criticised by many sectors in society, and the senior echelons of the SAPS have been acutely affected by multiple governance and leadership crises.

National Police Commissioner, Khehla Sitole, diplomatically reflected on the 2020/21 financial year in the SAPS Annual Report as "an unprecedented year, a year of courage, changes and challenges."

READ | Exclusive: On duty cop asleep in control room as Zandile Mafe spent 30 hours inside Parliament

The SAPS have not had a good start to 2022. A detailed report published by News24 journalists on 21 January provided excruciating details of how Zandile Mafe had reportedly spent approximately 30 hours in the parliamentary precinct prior to allegedly starting the fire that destroyed much of the Old Parliamentary Building. It was reported that Mafe was visible on CCTV footage for much of this time, yet the police responsible for monitoring the CCTV cameras were either asleep or otherwise engaged. 

Furthermore, it was reported last week that 158 firearms, many of them high-powered rifles, had gone missing from the Norwood police station. These two incidents have most likely further eroded public satisfaction with the SAPS. As we celebrate National Police Day  on 27 January, we also have to ask ourselves: Will SAPS be able to turn things around for the better in 2022?

Indeed, the South African government has some important policy documents that provide pertinent recommendations that have the potential to significantly improve policing in our country, such as the National Development Plan (NDP) and the White Paper on Policing. In particular, the NDP, which is government's flagship policy blueprint for socioeconomic development, has two broad proposals for improving policing in South Africa: Police demilitarisation, an integrated approach to safety, and increased community participation in safety.

Police demilitarisation

From the early-2000s the SAPS has undergone a remilitarisation process, which in response to rising levels of violent criminality and concerns in government that the police were underperforming. A 'war' on crime was declared and further reinforced from 2010, when the Minister of Police at the time (Nathi Mthethwa) announced that the SAPS would be commonly referred to as the 'Force', and that military ranks, insignias and salutes would be reintroduced to 'ensure clear lines of command and control while instilling a sense of discipline among the [police] members … [in order] to fight crime, and fight it tough and smart'.

At the time the SAPS reported that these measures had been introduced to inspire public confidence and improve police morale. 

READ | Demilitarisation is key to fix police leadership says former top cop Jeremy Vearey

The problem, however, is that reported violent crime has increased significantly (prior to Covid-19) and public confidence and trust in the SAPS has noticeably declined over the past decade, as demonstrated in Stats SA's Victims of Crime Surveys. In addition, the overt propagation of the 'war on crime' discourse has likely contributed to overly aggressive behaviour by police personnel.

The NDP recommends that a demilitarisation should entail police being selected and trained to be professional and impartial and responsive to community needs, competent and inspire confidence among the public. This recommendation implies that the excessive use of force by the police will be counterproductive.

Increased community participation in safety

In the mid-1990s, the government actively sought to increase community participation in policing in South Africa substantially. Community Policing Forums (CPFs) in all policing areas were established, which were envisaged to be committees of community members that would be mandated to:

  • Promote communication and cooperation between communities and the SAPS.
  • Engage in joint problem-solving between civilians and the police.
  • Facilitate transparency and accountability of the police.
  • Improve the delivery of police services. 

Nonetheless, many CPFs, especially in high crime areas, have struggled to function optimally, and as a result effective community participation in crime prevention and safety promotion has been stymied. Additionally, the SAPS has been resistant towards relinquishing some of their policing authority to ordinary citizens.

READ | Four CPF members in court after allegedly torturing man to death during robbery investigation

The NDP recommends that CPFs be properly capacitated, which includes training for CPF members and day-to-day support and oversight from the government, as well as CPFs prioritising the interests of the entire communities they serve, not just certain groups. It is also essential for the police to regard communities that they police as equal partners in the production of safety and to engage with crime and violence prevention specialists actively.

Certainly, such approaches are likely to lead to improvements in policing in South Africa including increases in public trust in the SAPS. Nonetheless, for such positive change to take place, it is imperative the current leadership and governance crises in the SAPS be resolved as a matter of priority.

- Dr Guy Lamb is based at the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University and serves as a Commissioner on the National Planning Commission. He is the author of a recent book: 'Policing and Boundaries in a Violent Society: A South African Case Study' (Routledge, 2022). This article is written in his personal capacity.


Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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