South Africa’s new national commissioner of police, General Fannie Masemola is by all accounts a competent career professional. When he took office on 1 April, Masemola was given an opportunity to set the country on a new trajectory.
For a democracy to thrive, leaders need the trust of their citizens. Police are the face of government in our communities; they are the state on the streets. The way police are perceived and experienced by the public fundamentally affects what people think of the government. Police effectiveness also depends on public trust – making this the single most important objective of the police and a priority for Masemola’s agenda.
When the public believes that police will listen to and respect them, they are more likely to obey the law and cooperate with police and government authority. In other words, police work isn’t just about crime-fighting – it’s culture-generating work. The way police engage with and are perceived by the public shapes the nature of society.
If we want less violence in South Africa, police must use force reasonably and proportionately. If we’re going to reduce gender inequality and gender-based violence, police officials cannot flirt with or harass members of the public. If we are to reduce road traffic fatalities, police cannot drive recklessly or fail to act when others do so. The police must embody the values and behaviour we look for in our most revered leaders.
Masemola can make this happen. He won’t be able to do it alone and he won’t be able to do it haphazardly. The process may be long and difficult and requires more than slogans like ‘back to basics’ or tinkering with existing structures. For the South African Police Service (SAPS) to become an institution that improves public safety, it must re-envisage what it does and how it does it. This requires a fundamental shift in organisational culture.
The new police chief’s work must begin with the wholesale rejuvenation of SAPS top management, ensuring that the right people have the right positions and that they support his reform agenda. Next, the existing culture of compliance must be replaced with station-level autonomy, innovation and strict accountability management.
Masemola also needs to assess his officers’ performance differently. Instead of using crime statistics and output-based performance targets (such as the number of cars or people searched), evaluations should use metrics that police cannot manipulate. These could include statistics recorded at health facilities and mortuary-recorded murders. They could also involve trust and satisfaction measures based on calls to crime victims and people who’ve been in police holding cells.
A large majority of the public does not trust the police. So the state cannot claim a legitimate monopoly on the use of force that underpins sound citizen-state relations. This ‘social compact’ was a cornerstone of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s February State of the Nation Address.
To regain their role in safeguarding South Africa’s democracy, police must respond swiftly and fairly when people need their help. They need to treat all people with dignity, listen to their stories whether they are victims or suspects, be respectful and explain their role as police. Evidence shows that clear, straightforward communication can vastly improve public trust in the police.
Such fundamental change won’t be achieved by the SAPS leadership alone. Undoing years of declining public safety – despite a 66% budget increase since 2012 – is a huge undertaking. Committed partnerships with those outside the SAPS will be vital.
Even before the significant damage done to the SAPS in the latter half of former president Jacob Zuma’s presidency, the National Development Plan had called for an independent, multisectoral national police board. This was to review existing police recruitment and promotion standards and assess the SAPS’ professional standing based on international norms and standards.
People with deep knowledge and experience reforming large organisations should be appointed to such a structure. It could help Masemola and a rejuvenated leadership cohort reform the SAPS and set South Africa on a new path grounded in the rule of law. The board should also assess how the police’s overall governance system, including the Civilian Secretariat for Police and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, could be strengthened.
Ramaphosa’s willingness to use the process recommended in the National Development Plan to select the national commissioner is a positive sign. He would do well to also consider the plan’s other recommendations for improving the police.
Moreover, there are many proposals from other inquiries and expert policing panels that should be applied by Masemola, Police Minister Bheki Cele and the president. Based on these, a detailed reform plan should be developed. The substantial increases in murder, robbery and organised crime and the widespread public violence and attempted insurrection of July 2021 demonstrate the urgency of the task.
When South Africans believe police are responsive and respectful, legitimacy will grow, not only in the police but also in government. Knowing that the state – through its police – will deal swiftly and fairly with wrongdoing can set the country on a new path. Masemola cannot fix the police alone, but with government, civil society and community backing, he could turn around an institution that is core to South Africa’s future.
Written by Gareth Newham, Head and Andrew Faull, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.