Jean Redpath | Inadequate and violent policing in KwaZulu-Natal: What's behind it?

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Police stand by at a protest in KZN
Police stand by at a protest in KZN
Claudine Senekal, Ladysmith Herald

KwaZulu-Natal has long suffered from inadequate, corrupt and violent policing. Recent events have simply made it more obvious. The problem of policing in the province dates from before the transition to democracy. Policing is a national function - in South Africa is in crisis and in KwaZulu-Natal the crisis is magnified, writes Jean Redpath.

During the violent looting in KwaZulu-Natal what was most evident was the almost complete absence of any South African Police Service (SAPS) officers. Yet unresponsive policing by SAPS is what citizens of this province routinely experience.

The 2016 Victims of Crime Survey (VOCS) found that some 26% in KZN said they "never" saw a police officer in uniform and on duty in their area, while a further 28% saw them only once a month. That's 53% on once a month or less – compared to the national average of 38%. Some 46% in KZN said SAPS took two or more hours to respond to an emergency call; a further 17% said between one and two hours; while s7% said SAPS do not ever arrive after an emergency call. That's 70% waiting more than an hour; the national average is 42% waiting more than an hour. Yet 90% in the province said the police station was actually within an hour's travel using their normal mode of transport. Clearly, the looters would have known the police were unlikely to arrive timeously.

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Part, but not all, of the problem relates to the number and distribution of police in the province, with only 140 per 100 000 at police stations (compared to a national average of 240 per 100 000).

Former homeland areas are much less resourced, despite some of the highest murder rates in the country: the average rate of policing in the former homeland is 120 per 100 000, compared to 237 per 100 000 in the rest of the province. One would expect more violent areas to have more police; but only the Eastern Cape (3 police for every murder per year) is worse-off than KwaZulu-Natal (3.5 police per murder per year) compared to the national average of 4.4 police per murder.

READ | KZN continues to be the country's murder capital

The SAPS steadfastly refuses to acknowledge in their allocations that murder rates are not just crimes they must deal with, but good indicators of the true extent of violent crime, which they should be attempting to prevent. In 2019/2020 the number of murders committed in KwaZulu-Natal was 4 859 – on average 92 people murdered every week. This number has increased in KwaZulu-Natal by 42% since 2011/12 – yet the provincial population grew by only 6%. The national population grew by 18% and national murders by 37%. The looting death-toll represents three weeks of "normal" murders in the province. 

Where KwaZulu-Natal is a complete outlier is in the number of people the police kill during police action: every year, for every million residents, the police in the province kill 23, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) – the next highest is Eastern Cape at 13 per million.

Higher rates of killings via police action are associated with lower rates of police officers per 100 000 – in other words, unlike the theorising of the United States' "defund the police" movement, in South Africa, having fewer police colleagues compared to the population being policed, makes police officers more likely to resort to lethal force. However, the level of lethal force associated with the police in KwaZulu-Natal is about 40% higher than one would expect, taking this into account.

History of political violence

What underpins this? The roots of the problem lie with the history of political violence between the ANC and IFP in the province, and later political violence between factions of the ANC.

Policing is a national function; indeed the centralisation of policing under national government in the 1996 Constitution was to some extent a result of fear that provincial police or provincial control of police would result in the then KwaZulu Police (KZP), known for their violent actions against the ANC, becoming a rogue armed force under an opposition province. Most KZP members were simply absorbed into SAPS. Some, who initially continued to fly KZP colours, were closed down, such as occurred at the Richmond police station in 1998.

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Constitutionally provincial governments have almost no say in policing; they have limited "oversight" functions and may communicate their "policing needs and priorities" to the SAPS. ANC provincial governments have attempted to intervene in policing in KwaZulu-Natal, to little effect.

Thus after a coalition ANC/IFP government took control in 1999, a provincial Commission of Inquiry into Taxi Violence was proclaimed, the terms of which required it to report, inter alia, "on whether there is any improper conduct by any member of the which indirectly or directly fanned or perpetuated taxi violence". Allegations were heard of SAPS involvement in activities in the taxi industry, from owning mini-bus taxis to being employed as hit men.

Provincial political control shifted to an ANC minority government in 2004; the new ANC premier established a Commission of Inquiry into Policing in 2005, at the instigation of the then provincial MEC, Bheki Cele, after an imbizo in October 2004 in Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal was disrupted by IFP supporters brandishing traditional weapons; SAPS members allegedly stood by and failed to stop the fracas. The brief of the Commission extended to investigating police conduct at more than ten police stations in the province. SAPS refused to cooperate: almost no one from SAPS attended.

The Commission's report was delayed and eventually released in February 2013, when it detailed the extreme measures the SAPS took to resist the Commission. The Commission's chairperson, Advocate Sthembiso "Stix" Mdladla, had been summoned to Pretoria by then National Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, who viewed the Commission as a personal attack.

The report was only released after Cele, who had been MEC and was thereafter national Police Commissioner from 2009-2012, was dismissed by President Zuma (as Police Commissioner) in June 2012. The report detailed criminal and unprofessional conduct by SAPS members in the province. In the interim, after the failed Mdlala Commission, the opposition IFP had accused MEC Cele of treating the SAPS as his "personal fiefdom", alleging that at his instruction IFP supporters were summarily tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets without provocation at another incident in Nongoma in 2009.

Another inquiry

After a spate of killings of politicians in the province, in 2016, a Provincial Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the murder of politicians in KwaZulu-Natal was gazetted by Premier Mchunu to be chaired by Advocate Marumo Moerane SC. Unlike the Mdladla Commission, SAPS leadership attended these hearings, possibly because the Western Cape's Khayelitsha Commission had by then established the right of Provincial Commissions to issue subpoenas to SAPS members.

On 21 February 2018, the Moerane Commission presented six members of the SAPS provincial management with Exhibit DD – 31 pages of allegations against its members made by those who had testified since 16 August 2017.

READ | Government failures and greed - Moerane commission reports damning findings

Placed before SAPS were allegations of tampering with evidence, failure to call witnesses, suspects' inexplicable release, poor communication, intimidation, political interference, fabricated charges, torture, harassment, obfuscation, denials and lies. Allegations were also made that "police only act if the ANC tells them to".

The final report, released later in 2018, recorded in a section headed "Findings" that "[e]vidence that senior political functionaries in the province employed private and out-of-province police to resolve criminal incidents, involving them personally, in the province does not give much confidence in the ability of the local security establishment".

In relation to the SAPS, the Commission called for the "de-politicisation" of the criminal justice system, "particularly [of] the police service", as well as for improved recruitment into the police.

Yet, the problem is not so easily fixed.

Politics magnifies issues

Policing is a national competence controlled by national government, and no Provincial Commissions will result in any change.

Problems with SAPS are not confined to KwaZulu-Natal, but they are magnified by politics there.

There are no quick fixes to turning around a centralised organisation as large as the SAPS, with around 190 000 employees.

Change begins with the professional leadership of SAPS and political will first, and will require transparency and accountability, removal of the corrupt and criminal, proper disciplining of misconduct, reintroduction of rank promotion examinations, recruitment emphasising ethics and temperament, and adequate use of crime information to direct resources appropriately.

- Dr Jean Redpath is a Senior Researcher at the Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape. This article borrows from her PhD thesis on subnational government and policing in South Africa. 

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