A hard-hitting television presenter recently asked the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, if he would resign given the deterioration of policing in recent years. This took place during a popular television programme called ‘The Big Debate’ screened on one of South Africa’s most watched television channels, SABC 2, on 14 April 2013. Incidents of police brutality have started making news on an almost daily basis in South Africa and the talk show focused on the question ‘Are the police out of control?’ Mthethwa responded that his resignation would not solve the problems facing the police, but judging from the studio audience’s reaction, there is deep public concern at the state of policing in South Africa. Is there any hope that something will be done to improve the situation?
Fortunately, government’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, titled ‘Our Future - Make it Work’ contains a number of far-reaching recommendations, which, if implemented, could see dramatic improvements not only in policing but throughout government. It was developed by the National Planning Commission (NPC) in the Office of the Presidency and was endorsed by the Cabinet at a lekgotla in September 2012. The African National Congress (ANC) subsequently adopted it in December 2012.
This document is potentially the most important government policy directive in recent years. It comprises 15 chapters covering a range of developmental issues broadly aimed at accelerating progress, deepening democracy and building a more active and inclusive society. It is therefore significant that one of its 15 chapters is dedicated to ‘building safer communities’. The NDP recognises that reducing crime and violence requires far more than what the police alone can achieve.
Nevertheless, the plan does recognise the deterioration in police professionalism following years of poor appointments of both senior and middle managers. It recommends, interalia, that:
- The national commissioner and deputy national commissioners should be appointed by the President on a competitive basis. Unlike the current situation where the President tends to appoint political loyalists with inadequate skills and experience, the NDP recommends that a panel select and interview a shortlist of candidates based on objective criteria. The President would then use the list of appropriately skilled professionals to appoint the national commissioner and his/her deputies;
- A national policing board with multisectoral and multidisciplinary expertise should be established to set standards for recruitment, selection, appointment and promotion, and should also develop a Code of Ethics for the police;
- All officers should undergo a competency assessment to gauge whether they meet the required standards for their current ranks. Officers who do not meet these standards should not be considered for promotion until they attain the required level of competence for that rank;
- In the next five years a two-stream system should be developed to create high-calibre officers and recruits. One stream would be for appointing non-commissioned officers and another for commissioned officers. Appointment into the officers’ stream should be based on set criteria, probably developed by the national policing board.
- In the short-term the existing Code of Conduct of the South African Police Service (SAPS) should be included in its disciplinary regulations and performance appraisal system. Periodic checks should be conducted to establish the extent to which the code is understood and practised. Members who fail this test should be suspended or even dismissed.
The NDP strongly recommends that the SAPS be demilitarised and that this should happen as soon as possible. It also recommends that the organisational culture of the police should be reviewed to assess the effects of militarisation, demilitarisation, remilitarisation and ‘the serial crises of top management’.
Apart from giving a very short historical background of the change from a ‘highly militarised and political police force’ before 1994 to a police ‘service’ in recent years, the NDP provides very little content as to its understanding of militarisation and demilitarisation. It argues that remilitarisation started as a gradual process in 2000 when the police began to resemble a paramilitary force and that the process was only formalised in 2010 with the reintroduction of military ranks. This argument requires a much deeper debate and is more complex than is suggested in the NDP.
The recommendation to demilitarise, as a short-term objective, suggests that the NDP sees this as requiring just another rank change (i.e. back to the previous non-military styled ranks). However, as argued extensively in previous ISS Today articles, the problems plaguing the police have less to do with their so-called militarisation and much more to do with systemic problems such as command and control, discipline and internal oversight (http://www.issafrica.org/iss_today.php?ID=1613). Of course, there are other factors that have weakened policing, such as the recruitment and training processes and the appointment of incompetent commanders.
At an ISS seminar on 11 April 2013 titled ‘Understanding Police Brutality in South Africa: Challenges and Solutions’, it was argued that the police are not militarised or demilitarised simply by changing their ranks. Rather it is the language and tone of their political and senior leaders that contribute to the creation of a form of militarisation. A clear example is the call by Susan Shabangu, then Deputy Minister of Safety and Security, on 9 April 2008 to police members at an imbizo in Pretoria to ‘kill the bastards’. During his announcement of the new military ranks on 12 March 2010, Mthethwa spoke about creating a ‘force’ (rather than a ‘service’) and of a ‘people’s war against criminals’.
The NDP addresses a number of other crime concerns that have important indirect implications for the police. For example, it calls for an integrated safety strategy that would involve other spheres of government in addressing the social and economic conditions at the root of much of our crime. In this regard, for example, it refers to a study by the World Bank in 2010 that confirmed that ‘there has been a growing consensus among policy-makers that violence is not simply a security issue but that it has deep social and economic roots and consequences’.
The NDP is not clear on where the responsibility for the implementation of its recommendations should be located, but according to a report in BuaNews, 7 September 2012, a Cabinet Committee will be established to develop targets and integrated implementation plans with the Forum for South African Directors-General (FOSAD).
Although some of the details remain unclear at this stage, if the political will exists to implement the NDP’s recommendations, the plan can go a long way towards developing a professional police service for South Africa.
- Johan Burger is senior researcher for Governance, Crime and Justice Division at the Institute for Security Studies. This article first appeared in the ISS Today.