Feature: July unrest highlighted deeply rooted problems within the SAPS


The July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng marked the bloodiest days in democratic South Africa’s history, with 337 dead, billions of Rands lost, factories burnt, and shops gutted.

The riots saw the police running out of resources, and citizens taking up arms to protect themselves and property. Within the government, then Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula contradicted President Cyril Ramaphosa on whether there was an insurrection or not; Police Minister Bheki Cele and Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo were in a public spat; and Cele and National Commissioner of Police Lieutenant General Khehla Sithole were not talking to each other.

The issues are beyond the tragic loss of life and economic costs. The fabric of society and trust in government has been undermined. It has weakened political stability and done irreparable damage to South Africa’s international image.

These were the opening remarks from Professor Hussein Solomon at a recent webinar discussing the unrest and broader security issues in South Africa. The 19 August webinar was held by the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of Free State (UFS) and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (foundation).

Vasu Gouden, Executive Director of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), said this is not the last of the civil unrest. “We will have repeat events of a similar nature and probably coming fairly soon. And so, we have to look at how do we mitigate those events.”

South Africa has an extensive history of violence and state oppression, with numerous sectors of society questioning the government’s legitimacy, especially as national security institutions (SA National Defence Force, SA Police Service and State Security) are deeply dysfunctional and underfunded, said Professor Abel Esterhuyse, Chair of the Strategic Studies in the Department of Military Science at the University of Stellenbosch.

He noted that society is taking responsibility for its own security and the number of illegal firearms in this country is a huge problem that is not being adequately dealt with. Esterhuyse believes a rethink is needed regarding the government’s approach to security – while the state needs to take responsibility for security, “how can we positively embrace communities, private securities and legitimate gun ownership’s role in security? Those are three critical debates that we will see in future in terms of a state’s monopoly on violence in South Africa,” said Esterhuyse.

Flawed SAPS

Gareth Newham, Head, Justice and Violence Prevention at the Institute for Security Studies Pretoria, said the biggest challenge facing the new democratic government in 1994 was to increase or improve the legitimacy of the South African police. South Africa’s police force was seen as brutal, oppressive, corrupt, protecting a white minority and apartheid laws. The importance for the new democratic government to build legitimacy in the new police service cannot be understated, he said.

Newham said community policing, a new concept being used around the world, was implemented in the first five years of democracy and there was increased police legitimacy. “Around 2000, community policing was focusing too heavily on the forums instead of their functions and there were provincial and local level policing issues arising. Policing at a national level did not have clear policies or understanding on what to do.” The South African Police Service (SAPS) then changed their policing direction from prevention to combatting crime.

From 2000 to 2012, there was a massive growth in the police service. “In 2002, we had 132 000 SAPS members. By 2012, it was just under 200 000 people. In that period, we see a shift in policing approach. From community policing and a crime prevention strategy to, by 2011, 2012, bring back of military ranks,” Newham said. The notion of a war on crime was the narrative from politicians at the time. Many South Africans will remember former deputy police minister Susan Shabangu’s, “Shoot to kill” phrase, aligning with the idea that if military ranks are bought back, it will emphasise that the government is fighting a war on crime and instil some discipline in the SAPS. Newham said one of the big reasons for this militarisation and need for discipline in the SAPS ranks was because of recruitment.

From the early 2000s to around 2010, the SAPS was recruiting between 3 000 to 9 000 per year but its recruitment and training systems were only set up to process 3 000 to 4 000 people per year. Newham said it decentralised recruitment, which opened it up to corruption as people started to buy their way into the police. “Length of training was reduced from two years to one year to get boots on their ground quicker. Training colleges were oversubscribed, so they started to introduce military style discipline/collective punishment rather than focusing on important policing skills like communication and conflict management,” Newham said.

At the time, Jackie Selebi was being investigated for corruption in the mid-2000s and was eventually convicted. From 2009 until 2017, South Africa had eight different national commissioners of police and that is where Newham believes the root of the challenge to be. “The ANC when it came into power in 1994, did not have a history or background in policing, it focused mainly on guerrilla tactics and warfare so its members had been trained by militaries and military institutions in Eastern Europe but policing wasn’t really focused on. In many ways, policing has never been something focused on in government policy,” Newham explained.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup saw new equipment and more recruits in the SAPS and was initially met with low crime levels. Then in 2011/2012, Newham states, is when the country started seeing the problems of this leadership challenge. From 2012 to 2020, the police budget increased by over 65% to about R96 billion annually, but the number of police officials dropped by around six percent. The reason the number dropped is that police officers under the rank of Captain, automatically got promoted every four years regardless of performance. Subsequently the SAPS started running into budgetary problems. Newham said standards have, “gone out the window”, largely because of a leadership crisis in the SAPS. “It was first identified in 2012 by the National Development Plan which states a serial crisis of top management in the SAPS as a key problem that needs to be addressed.”

“To become a National Commissioner, you only by law, have to be a South African born citizen over the age of 18 and not have a criminal record. Its actually harder to become a constable because there are about 18 criteria you have to meet,” added Newham.

Newham said Parliamentary appointments have been political, and the SAPS is bloated, with 200 Generals and 800 Brigadiers now making up the SAPS’s senior management structure. “It is too big and too incoherent to provide a clear policy approach to policing, to implement the policies that are there and to make sure police officers at grass roots level in communities are trained, resourced, able to deal with community problems and behave in ways that promote trust and legitimacy,” said Newham.

Declining police performance

SAPS performance indicators such as the ability to hold roadblocks, conduct search operations, confiscate illegal firearms, provide air support, plan resource allocation and the capacity of forensic analytical systems, have all started to run into trouble. “For example, in 2020, the police were only able to confiscate half the number of illegal firearms that they were able to do in 2012,” said Newham, adding the SAPS performance deterioration is most notable when you look at their ability to solve crimes. The SAPS ability to solve murders drops by 38% between 2012 and 2020. Last year, police were only able to solve 19 out of every 100 murders that they recorded. Ability to solve armed robberies has dropped by 24%, and is now sitting at 17%. Since 2012, murder has gone up by 37% and the number of robberies has gone up by 43%. These statistics hinder the SAPS’s legitimacy, and communities lose trust in the Service.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the legal watchdog for the SAPS, Newham said, is not operating at a high level of functionality at all. Ninety-five per cent of cases opened against police officers with the IPID end with no sanction taken against the defending officer. In 4% there may be a disciplinary hearing and 1% there might be a criminal prosecution. Of the 48 000 cases opened with IPID since 2011, .4% result in the dismissal of a police officer. Newham said this is largely due to the collapse of the SAPS disciplinary system. Holding around 5 500 disciplinary hearings in 2012, it now struggles to hold just over 1 500. In 93% of cases found guilty, there is no punitive measure taken place.

“Another problem with that is people start turning to the courts, which has effected the police budget – in the past five years, the police have had to pay R2.5 billion to victims who proved in court that they were victims of police misconduct,” Newham said.

There have been at least six different reports and inquiries into police conduct in South Africa since 2012. The National Development Plan in 2012, the Khayelitsha commission in 2014, the Marikana report in 2015, the White Paper of Policing in 2016, the State of Democratic Policing in South Africa in 2017 and the Panel of Experts Report in Policing and Crowd Management in 2018, all diagnose the problems in the SAPS and give practical solutions.

None of those recommendations are being implemented. “So, the problem is, that of leadership and it goes back to political leadership. Everything about the police service should be about building public trust and legitimacy. Unfortunately, right now, the current priority of the SAPS, according to its five-year strategic plan, is to stamp the authority of the state,” Newham explained.