Better policing in South Africa is well within reach

SA has the necessary skills and resources – we need the president and police minister to make reform their mission.

06 JUN 2024  

Imagine a South Africa where policing worked and people were safe. Imagine that by the country’s next national polls in 2029, voters knew that the 2024 election had delivered a president and police minister who took reform seriously.

‘Safety for all starts with a motivated police service trusted by the public and equipped to make sure violent criminals face trial,’ they would have said, as they took up their new posts.

For one, crime would be less of a campaign issue in 2029 than it was in 2024. The murder rate would have dropped. Organised crime was on the back foot, with more kingpins in the National Prosecuting Authority’s crosshairs.

Guns were starting to fall silent. There were fewer robberies and less taxi violence. People noticed less drug dealers and addicts on the streets. International investment in the country was rising as safety ratings improved. Shops stayed open longer, and less money was spent on extortion or private security. Young people felt hopeful.

Policing all 62 million people is impossible – SAPS should target the 30 000 offenders who make us feel least safe

A clear, practical programme to improve the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) professionalism, performance and integrity was bearing fruit. The new leaders revitalised police management systems so that only the best candidates were in positions of authority. There was a clear line of sight from head office to police stations nationwide. Local safety challenges were quickly recognised and resolved.

A rigorous independent assessment had pinpointed policing priorities. The intelligence and investigative units were properly resourced and worked together well. Repeat violent offenders and those leading criminal networks found themselves before the courts.

Visible policing and high-density operations were carefully planned to tackle specific crimes. An Evidence-Based Policing Centre was set up to document lessons and apply them countrywide, guide police leaders’ decisions and regularly update training and station-level instructions.

Recognising that it was impossible to police all of the country’s 62 million people, leaders decided to go after the 30 000 who made civilians the least safe. Working with a revamped intelligence division, each station commander identified the top 20 accused in their precincts who caused the most harm, and brought them to book.

Dedicated forensics and anti-firearm units could trace and remove guns and ammunition used in crime

As the SAPS started using resources better, they closed in on those responsible for most of the 27 494 murders recorded in 2024 and thereafter. These offenders also typically committed other crimes, so ending their impunity dramatically improved safety. Police stopped wasting resources on arresting tens of thousands of poor people in the streets for petty crimes.

The new police minister understood that the SAPS was too large and complex to change overnight. It needed a carefully considered approach developed by skilled police working with experienced outsiders. The minister stuck to her commitment that the SAPS would be assessed against the best police and crime prevention practices internationally.

Rigorous analysis of firearm crimes allowed the police to remove illegal guns from the streets. The Central Firearm Registry was fully digitised and capacitated, and the loss of police firearms dropped from 740 in 2023 to under 20. Dedicated forensics capacity helped anti-firearm units trace and remove guns and ammunition used in crime. Those involved in dealing or possession of illegal firearms were jailed. Management of firearm stocks by private security companies and legal firearm owners improved.

The police minister saw that a few practical changes made a big difference in the SAPS’ ability to reduce murder, with the rate of solved murder dockets increasing dramatically from the paltry 12% in 2024.

Recruitment practices were overhauled so only the best were selected as SAPS trainees. Entry-level recruitment was fully digitised to prevent bribery and ensure applicants had a minimum level of skill. Those selected were good communicators, problem solvers and team players. They brought fresh thinking, skills and pride to their work. Joining the police was no longer a last-hope chance at a job.

Entry-level recruitment should be fully digitised to prevent bribery and ensure applicants have minimum skills

The new administration realised that the high levels of police corruption and misconduct led to low levels of public trust in the police and government as a whole. These problems were also costly and wasteful – with hundreds of millions paid out in civil claims to victims of unlawful police behaviour.

The SAPS Integrity Management Component was given the resources and authority to undertake regular random tests on police officials suspected of wrongdoing. Those who did their jobs honestly and to standard were empowered and eligible for promotion. Those who brought the SAPS into disrepute were removed. Dedicated internal investigation units ensured that officers failing to meet the codes of conduct and ethics standards were dismissed.

The SAPS was on the road to becoming an organisation the public trusted. This was an improvement from 2021, when 73% of people surveyed by the Human Sciences Research Council said they had no or little trust in the police. Or the Transparency International survey finding that almost one in five people thought all police were corrupt, and 30% said they thought most police were corrupt.

Instead of fearing the police, communities appreciated them. People reported crime and gave information to the police on those they knew were involved in wrongdoing. Women no longer worried as much about being harassed by policemen, and more parents told their children to find the nearest officer for help if they were lost or in trouble.

All of this is possible – it need not be imaginary. South Africa has the skills, expertise and resources to make it happen. Will our new political leaders and government seize the opportunity?

On 27 June, ISS launches its recommendations covering five areas of policing that can transform South Africa’s safety trajectory. Register here to attend online or in person.

Image: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo

Evidence-based Policing Professional Policing


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