Category Archives: Gareth Newham

The Star: Has our police force gone full apartheid circle?

Has our police force gone full apartheid circle?

April 10, 2010 Edition 1

Andrew Faull and Gareth Newham

When George Fivaz, an apartheid-era career policeman, was appointed the first National Commissioner of the newly democratic South African Police Service in 1995, he stressed the need for the new organisation to make a “clean and definite break with the past”.

Central to the new vision for the national police body was the replacement of the word “force” with “service” in the organisation’s name, and the replacement of the military ranks with civilian titles. The infamous Ministry of Law and Order under which the police fell was also given a new name more fitting with its intended function, the Ministry of Safety and Security.

Each of these gestures was made to promote a vision of a community-centric police agency that worked with communities rather than against them. This vision has been stoically pursued by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the government since the early 1990s.

Among the key tenets of the reformed police service were that it be an accessible, accountable, community-orientated organisation guided by the constitution.

Fifteen years later, South Africa’s ruling party appears to be calling for an about-turn in policing.

The ministry has again been renamed and is now the Ministry of Police, while hard-talking provincial politician-turned-National Commissioner Bheki Cele has become General Cele, as of last Thursday, when the SAPS returned to a military rank system as part of a larger shift to change the SAPS back into a police force.

The irony in this move is glaring. A former apartheid police officer leads the organisation away from the brutal ways of the past, and the former freedom fighter and enemy of the then South African Police Force, aims to lead it back. Or is it that simple?

A media statement by the Ministry of Police on March 11 attempted to explain the move as emerging from the government’s stance of “fighting crime and fighting it tough”. As a result, we are told that we can expect changes in “attitude, thinking and operational duties” from the new police force.

While few would argue that change is needed in these areas, what implications might changing the names of the ranks have for policing?

Although the government appears shy to label the envisaged changes as “militarisation”, it will be difficult for the “Generals” running the police to resist this doctrine. Militarised policing is traditionally considered the opposite of community policing – the model South Africa has so far worked hard to embrace.

Militarised police forces rely less on working with the population and tend rather to see themselves as aloof warriors pitted against an “enemy”. In this sense, adopting a militarised stance on policing fits with government’s discourse of a “war on crime” in which “criminals” are cast as enemies of the people and state, much like the swart gevaar of old.

One of the ongoing challenges facing the police, and one that changing the ranks will not solve, is to identify this “enemy”. People cannot be simply labelled as “criminals” until the courts have ruled this to be the case. The ruling party has repeatedly made this point in defence of its various senior members who have faced criminal charges.

It is for this reason that a key priority if we are to reduce crime is to appoint and train more detectives who can work with communities to identify those committing crime and gather evidence against them in order to convict them in court. Militarising the police will not automatically result in highly motivated, effectively trained and well-managed detectives.

An additional concern has been that the SAPS has in recent years increasingly been called upon to act against ordinary citizens during service delivery-related protests. Scenes of crowds fleeing police rubber bullets are now perhaps as common as they were during apartheid, when police and military teamed up to suppress popular dissent.

Additionally, deaths as a result of police action and in police custody, as well as allegations of torture by police, have risen notably in recent years. Again, these are trends reminiscent of the old South African Police Force. Despite these signs of increased use of force by the police there has not been a reduction in either protests or violent organised crime.

According to Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, “the first premise is around enforcing the highest form of discipline within the police”. This intention is certainly welcome, given the high levels of misconduct and corruption that continue to plague our police.

However, the rank changes in themselves are unlikely to improve discipline. Improvements in discipline are only likely to occur once commanders are appointed because of proven management ability and are held directly responsible for the conduct of their subordinates.

This will require improvements to the system that the public can use to register complaints when they are subject to police abuse or misconduct. Most importantly, internal investigation units and the disciplinary system must be substantially strengthened to ensure that police wrongdoing is appropriately punished and that those falsely accused are quickly cleared.

Changes to “attitudes, thinking and operational duties” might well lead to more effective policing, but this is only likely once police leadership starts proactively addressing the unnecessary use of force and torture by police officials, the high levels of corruption and the general disrespect shown to suspects and therefore all our rights.

If this does not happen, the changes the public experience in the future may be disturbingly familiar to those we have experienced in the past.