We Can’t Give the Police What We Don’t Have: A reflection on policing in contemporary South Africa

By Ziyanda Stuurman

3 February, 2022

The South African Police Service (SAPS) is in perpetual crisis. In what is often described as the most unequal country in the world, the police service that reformed from a police force with a long and brutal colonial and Apartheid past, now struggles to prevent and investigate crime.

In research and analysis by Lizette Lancaster of the Institute for Security Studies, the SAPS’ ability to solve murders has declined by 38% in the past decade since 2011/2012, with the result that between 2019 and 2020, detectives were only able to solve 19 out of every 100 murders. In real numbers, that means that police were only able to solve 19% of the 21,325 murders recorded between 2019 and 2020. Due to the harsh COVID-19 lockdowns implemented throughout 2020 and 2021 – with measures that included overnight curfews and severe restrictions on movement (except for limited purposes) – South Africa’s annual crime statistics have been difficult to compare over quarterly periods. However, there is little indication that any downward trends observed over the last two years were due to improvements in police performance and not the spill-over effects of pandemic-mitigation measures that disrupted criminal activities, trends, and networks worldwide.

But the crisis in the SAPS is in no way new, nor was it inevitable. In the early 1990s, as the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and other liberation struggle parties were unbanned by the Apartheid government, and negotiations to end Apartheid were coming to a head, ways to reform the then South African Police (SAP) were also negotiated. I wrote about the history of this reform, and the 400-year history of the SAPS, the SAP, and its predecessor organisations, in the first two chapters of my book Can We Be Safe? The Future of Policing in South Africa (2021) because I believe it is the only way to truly unpack and understand why policing in South Africa is the way it is today.

Much has been written about South Africa’s police reform process and the many ways in which it failed, or was wholly ill-prepared and ill-equipped, to contend with its colonial policing origin and violent history. In her 2011 article ‘Challenges to Police Reform in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Naomi Phillips wrote about the ways in which the SAP struggled to transform itself into the SAPS. She makes the argument that those implementing the transformation and leading the reform process did not believe in either process, and that a rise in violent crime in the 2000s made it difficult for police leadership to convince both the public and individual officers that it was possible to conduct policing in a way that prioritised human rights and was community-oriented, as per the newly adopted Bill of Rights in the Constitution. As Phillips wrote, ’important figures within the South African government came to publicly denounce the relationship between protecting [human] rights and policing.’ All of this was compounded by the racist, militaristic, and violent culture within the country’s police force – not a service – as the country transitioned from the authoritarian and fascist National Party (NP) government to a Government of National Unity (GNU), and eventually to democracy under the ANC.

Other sociologists and security experts such as Jonny Steinberg and Jacklyn Cock have written about pressures outside of the policing institution and the reform processes that directly affected how those processes shaped the new institution. In his 2014 article, ‘Policing state power, and the transition from apartheid to democracy: A new perspective’, Steinberg wrote about how ‘old instruments [of policing] generally survive only when agents in the present find a use for them’. These pressures were not only institutional, driven by and within the government or the police service; they were also felt at the individual level. In the 2005 article ‘‘Guards and Guns’: Towards Privatised Militarism in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Cock made the argument that the reform process within the SAPS – specifically between 1990 and 1998 – simultaneously excluded many former liberation militants and created a market for a network of former military operatives and officers to provide private security to compensate for where the police were now failing. In explicit terms, that failure was acutely perceived amongst the White middle class and private businesses, as a police force that once served a minority – in 1994, 74% of all police resources were allocated to policing the White population – was becoming a police service that had to ensure safety and security for the majority of South Africa’s Black, poor, and working-class citizens. According to Cock, these societal and institutional changes led to ‘new forms of violence, the growth of private security firms and the proliferation of small arms.’

In more recent years, security experts and activists working to ensure the equitable distribution of police resources across the country’s informal settlements and suburbs agree that not enough has been done to ensure that police are deployed and given the resources to do their jobs where they are needed most. In Can We Be Safe?, I discuss the political and legal efforts undertaken to hold police leadership accountable for failures in policing that have made communities like Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town, unsafe for its residents, because criminals operate with impunity and the police are unsympathetic to their plight, or collaborate with criminals themselves. However, reallocating police resources across communities is not enough to ‘fix’ a broken system; it cannot build the non-existent trust between communities and the police, and it cannot erase the racist and violent history of policing in South Africa since its very inception.

Image credit: Government ZA

To put it simply, South Africans cannot give the police what we do not have. We do not trust them, we think they are corrupt and we are losing faith in the police and many of our public institutions to live up to their mandates, as detailed in the latest round of Afrobarometer public opinion surveys. In addition to this, the annual police budget – which was R97.1 billion (£4.5 billion) in the most recent financial year – has grown by 65.6% since 2012; this represents the largest growth in budget allocation to any national government entity in the past decade. However, as detailed earlier, there is almost no positive correlation between this large budget and the ability of the police to prevent or investigate crime.

The path we take forward from here seems to be binary: we either triple-down on reform efforts, or we look for radical solutions in defunding the police or abolishing the police and prison system altogether. But very little in public discourse, politics, or policy is binary. One could easily argue that we have tried, if not exhausted, the reform process and anything we do now must be a radical departure from what we have tried before. And similarly, one could argue that what seems radical may in fact be reasonable: in a highly pressurised fiscal environment, in the most unequal country in the world, demanding accountability from the police on every single Rand spent each year before we give them more, makes far more sense than pouring more money into a declining institution and a decaying system.

It may be time to view the future of policing in South Africa as the foundation of the future of our country and its democracy. South Africans cannot build their lives and their own futures where they do not feel safe, and the SAPS has no discernible future in a country where it is chronically dysfunctional. South Africans also need to ask themselves difficult questions about why it is that we focus more on punishing crime and less on preventing it when prevention would go much further in keeping us all safer.

It may be time for research, innovation, and action on preventing crime, violence, and conflict that de-centres the police and what they can or cannot do, and instead centralises the perspectives of citizens, public sentiment, and community power.

Ziyanda Stuurman is a Chevening and Fulbright alum and an MA graduate of Sussex University as well as Brandeis University. She is a frequent commentator on policing and security issues in South Africa and works as a Policy Manager focused on labour issues and crime, violence, and conflict prevention. She is also the author of the book ‘Can We Be Safe? The future of policing in South Africa’ released in June 2021. Follow her on Twitter @ZiyandaS_

Header image credit: Government ZA

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