How can South Africa’s minister of police improve policing?

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At its launch on 8 May 2023, the police’s Operation Shanela (Zulu for ‘sweep’) was billed as an unapologetic and decisive initiative to ‘fight crime and criminality in South Africa.’ Marking its anniversary last week, Police Minister Bheki Cele noted the operation’s success at a media briefing that presented impressive statistics on South African Police Service (SAPS) actions.

The SAPS said 71 576 local, high-density police operations were held in crime hotspots, mostly from Thursdays to Mondays (as crime analysis shows that most serious and violent crimes happen over weekends). The operations typically comprised roadblocks, searching people and vehicles, and tracing wanted suspects. This resulted in 616 423 arrests, of which 21% were ‘wanted suspects’, and the seizure of 22 525 firearms, an increase on the 3 210 recovered in the 2022/23 financial year.

Despite this, violent crime rose nationally by 3% or 19 498 additional cases compared to the same period the year before. Attempted murder increased by 13.2% and street robberies, hijackings and business robberies also grew.

Murders dropped by 1.2%, or 339 fewer cases, and there was a 5.8% reduction in residential robberies – possibly due to the large number of firearms recovered. Notable decreases were recorded for most property crimes over Shanela’s operational period, although this is consistent with the long-term trend for these offences.

These statistics raise several questions, notably to what extent Shanela contributed to reductions in certain crime categories and not others, given the immense police effort and resources involved. Perhaps the large police presence in high-crime precincts led to more victims reporting violent crime. Or maybe the operation disrupted those engaged in property crime more than violent crime.

While high-density or visible policing operations like Shanela can help promote public safety, they are generally blunt tools unlikely to bring about sustainable improvements. Career and organised criminals adapt and circumvent such operations, particularly when police corruption is a factor, as criminals are usually tipped off.

The most effective way for the police to reduce crime is by targeting specific individuals and networks that commit the most harm. This requires investing in two areas: crime intelligence to ensure police resources are correctly focused, and investigation capacity to secure convictions for the most harmful offenders. If high-density operations are strategically driven, supported by appropriate technology and subject to rigorous evaluation, they can ‘stop the bleeding’ and complement more comprehensive strategies.

However, instead of boosting intelligence and investigations, there has been a notable deterioration in these capabilities since 2012. As a result, the detection rate for murder (the ability to solve cases leading to a suspect’s arrest) has dropped 61% since 2011/12. Only 12.4% of cases were solved in 2022/23. This decline is evident across most categories of serious violent crime, as documented by the Institute for Security Studies’ Crime Hub.

The decimation of SAPS Crime Intelligence under Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli, who was subsequently convicted of violent crimes and faces prosecution for corruption, is well documented. There is little evidence that police intelligence capacity has since improved. The failure to prevent the July 2021 civil unrest or hold the masterminds accountable underscores this, although some recent breakthroughs against criminal kingpins are encouraging.

The SAPS faces major leadership challenges – a problem first officially flagged in the government’s 2012 National Development Plan, which described a ‘serial crisis of top management in the police.’ But none of the plan’s recommendations were implemented and the challenges persist. For example, after a new Crime Intelligence head was appointed in December 2022, a senior officer submitted an affidavit alleging the head was irregularly installed to cover up high-level police corruption.

The police minister acknowledged the leadership crisis in last week’s briefing. He said many of the capabilities that existed when the country recorded its lowest murder rate in 2011/12 had been dismantled by those subsequently in charge.

All this poses challenges for the next police minister appointed after the country’s 29 May national elections – and requires a rethink about how to strengthen their role in the SAPS.

A longstanding concern has been the intrusion of various police ministers into the police’s operational realm. Examples abound, but notably, Mdluli should never have been a candidate for Crime Intelligence head. Nevertheless, he was appointed following a meeting between four cabinet ministers and then police minister Nathi Mthethwa.

Ministerial regulations published in 2018 allow the minister to influence the appointment and promotions of senior officers. Ideally, these choices should be immune from political influence and follow a transparent process based on merit-based selection criteria that emphasise proven effectiveness and integrity.

The constitution gives the police minister unconstrained scope to provide directives to the SAPS. However in democracies, politicians are rarely policing experts and should instead focus on ‘executive oversight’. Once a minister has set the strategic direction and policies to support this, they must hold the police to account for implementation, ensure coordination with other agencies, and promote public engagement with the police.

If ministers get involved in appointments and operational matters, they develop a vested interest in personalities and tactics. That makes it unlikely that they can objectively assess whether the police are achieving their strategic objectives.

The next police minister should develop a highly effective policy and assessment capability. Ideally, the Civilian Secretariat of Police would develop and rigorously monitor policy and strategy implementation to strengthen the SAPS’ ability to improve public safety. Operation Shanela should be independently assessed to provide the minister with good evidence of the benefits and shortcomings of these types of operations.

Regardless of who South Africa’s police minister is, they need to provide solid executive oversight of the SAPS backed by an evidence-based approach. That could see a marked improvement in policing over the administration’s next five years.

Join the ISS webinar on 14 May to discuss priorities for South Africa’s next police minister.

Written by Gareth Newham, Head, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.