How to appoint a competent – and honest – national police commissioner


President Jacob Zuma and new police minister Fikile Mbalula have an immediate opportunity to radically improve policing in South Africa through the appointment of a competent, honest and experienced person to head the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the special investigation unit, the Hawks.

This would solve a longstanding crisis in police management and the deterioration in public safety over the past five years.

A new campaign by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Corruption Watch calls for a SAPS national commissioner to be appointed on merit following a transparent and competitive process, in line with recommendations in government’s National Development Plan.

The selection criteria for the country’s top cop are today less rigorous than for the lowest rank of constable. This has led to people being appointed for political reasons rather than their ability to do one of the country’s most important jobs, the ISS and Corruption Watch maintain.

The campaign proposes that candidates for SAPS national commissioner be chosen for their skills, experience and integrity. They should have to pass a security clearance and psychological evaluation prior to selection. The recruitment process proposed by Corruption Watch and the ISS would have prevented the appointment of past police commissioners dismissed for incompetence, dishonesty and corruption.

The campaign calls for the public and the parliamentary portfolio committees of police and justice to have a greater role in appointing South Africa’s police leader.
“The secretive way in which the president chooses the top police officer is clearly not working,” Gareth Newham, Head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the ISS, said. “We need clear and sensible criteria for assessing candidates and a transparent process to appoint a police officer with the right credentials and integrity to lead the SAPS”.

The campaign wants to see the new process started quickly with five candidates shortlisted by year end. “This may be the most important change in policing strategy for many years,” Newham said.

South Africa has had eight police commissioners since 1994. With the exception of George Fivaz, none of the permanent appointments to the post of SAPS national commissioner had policing experience – and each of these appointments ended in disgrace with a board of inquiry recommending the SAPS head be fired.

SAPS national commissioner is a powerful position but appointment of the wrong people has badly affected police performance, put the public at risk, and hindered social and economic development, the ISS and Corruption Watch said.

The SAPS annual budget rose from R36 billion in 2007 to R87 billion in 2017, but detection of murder and robbery decreased. Visible policing also went down. Civil claims against police have risen 175% in five years to R290 million. The murder rate has gone up 19.5% since 2011, and aggravated robbery is up 31.5%.

ISS and Corruption Watch propose the police minister establishes a panel of skilled people to shortlist the most qualified candidates, with support from the Civilian Secretariat of Police and the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police. The panel’s first task will be to develop merit-based criteria for leading a professional police agency.

An honest person with the right skills would have more support from colleagues and the public, the campaign maintains. And proper screening would make them less likely to be corrupt.
“Years of incompetence and corruption in the senior leadership of the SAPS have allowed wealthy and politically connected individuals in South Africa to get away with corruption. This campaign aims to address the problem. With sufficient public support, it could be a game changer in the battle against corruption,” said David Lewis, Executive Director of Corruption Watch.

The campaign proposes candidates be interviewed publicly, before a shortlist of five is presented to the president to choose from.