Marks, M. (1995). Community Policing, Human Rights and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Paper presented to the National Secretariat of the South African Police Union, Roodeplaat Training Centre, 25 July.


Monique Marks

Paper presented to the National Secretariat of the South African Police Union, Roodeplaat Training Centre, 25 July 1995.

Monique Marks is a former Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Discussions around human rights and the police are of insurmountable importance at the present time. In South Africa historically, human rights and the police were perceived as incompatible concepts; for the majority of South Africans it was the very police who were supposed to protect citizens who guaranteed that human rights were not only denied, but violated. It is no secret the police have been the key state instrument ensuring that apartheid policies were enforced; for the most part this involved all efforts possible on behalf of the security forces to quell any perceived or actual opposition to the government of the day. Sadly, the perception of police as cruel, unaccountable, and extremely violent, became the predominant image of all police - black and white - and, despite attempts at changing this, continues to prevail at present. Not only are the police service seen to be illegitimate, they are also perceived as inefficient and unable to respond adequately to the high levels of crime in South Africa.

The dramatic levels of crime in South Africa is alarming for all citizens, and this included police. While police spokespersons claim that murders in South Africa are on the decrease, most other crimes such as car hijacks, armed robbery, assault, and rape on the increase. This has led key researchers such as Mark Shaw to state that "since the 1994 election, political violence has dissipated (although it has not ended), but crime has continued to increase as it did during the first four years of the 1990s."1 He continues by stating that "high levels of crime affect all South Africans",2 both black and white although the manner in which communities experience and respond to crime may differ. Furthermore, any public debate around crime at present and in the future, will "be influenced decisively by the ability, actual and perceived, of policing institutions to combat crime and ensure personal safety. This requires an examination of the South African Police Service (SAPS) ability to counter crime."3

The crime levels in South Africa would be daunting for any police service internationally, but even more so for the South African Police Service. This is so for a number of reasons. Firstly, as has already been noted, police are not regarded in good faith by the majority of South Africans. There can be no clearer indication of this than the high incidence of attacks on members of the South African Police Service, even subsequent to the first democratic election in April 1994.

During the period 1 January to 31 August 1994, a total number of 872 attacks on members of the South African Police.4 During the entire year of 1994, there were 1474 attacks on SAP members. The majority of these attacks took place in Gauteng, followed by KwaZulu Natal. The fewest attacks occurred in the Free State and the Northern Transvaal. A total of 225 members of the SAP were murdered in 1994; the majority of these murders occurred while members of the police were off duty.5 While it was reported in the Star (07/07/95) that there has been a decrease in murders of members of the police service in 1995, attacks continue to prevail. This makes the work of police officers both thankless, and extremely violent. It also raises serious questions as to the viability at present of police officers working in areas in which they reside.

To make matters worse, while the police service is attempting to "clean up their act", there are daily reports exposing the profound involvement of members of the security forces, both the police and the military, in gross violations of human rights. There can be little doubt that police at all levels of operation were engaged in tortures, poisoning, assassinating, and discrediting people who were active in opposing the apartheid state. While South Africans want to know the truth as to what happened to their family members, friends, and fellow workers, the consistent revelations regarding police involvement in gross human rights violations will inevitably serve to deepen the suspicion and distrust of the SAPS at large. It is therefore completely reasonable that South Africans ask questions such as "can the police service really change?" and "can we really depend on the police to act in good faith with regards issues of safety and security in local communities?".

Police in South Africa at present face the dual challenge of fighting crime, while concurrently trying to develop a service tasked with ensuring the safety and basic human rights of all South Africa's citizens and residents. These challenges are enormous given the past record of the South African Police and the current high levels of crime, combined with the fact that in the near future more and more of the "dirty tricks" carried out by members of the South African Police will be exposed.

As a union representing a large proportion of police workers in South Africa, it is your duty to play a central role in ensuring that the police not only develop a new image, but also provide the best possible services to the communities in which you work. At the same time, however, any union needs to represent the needs of its members, and try to improve their working conditions so that they are able and willing to give of their time and energy to the crucial work that is to be carried out by any police service. This requires a fundamentally new approach to policing in South Africa which will be difficult both to long serving members of the SAPS, new recruits, and the civilian community itself.

Community Policing

Community policing has come to be seen as a new and improved mode of policing in South Africa. The thrust of the new Police Act is in fact community policing, which includes an increasingly active role of civilians in the practice and policy of policing. The aim of community policing is two-fold: firstly, to assist the police in creating improved relations with the communities they serve; and secondly, yet not unrelated, to make policing the responsibility of all South Africans which in turn should serve to decrease the level of crime in our society. In essence then, community policing refers to the police working together with the community in fighting crime. This does not mean that civilians take over the role of the police, but rather that the police act in consultation with the community, and are responsive to the needs of the communities which they serve.

The community and the police should work together to prevent crime, arrest offenders, and as partners develop appropriate solutions to problems which are both potentially, or actually, endemic to local communities and the Republic at large. In order to achieve this, the police service and communities need to have close working relationships with one another based on trust, and a shared concern for peace and stability. This requires effective mechanisms of communication between all parties concerned; be they the police, residents of particular communities, business people, local government, and potential investors.

Community policing is not an easy option; it requires a whole new approach to policing where the police service is no longer an independent body whose duty it is to ensure law and order with, whatever, means are deemed necessary. Community policing is a new philosophy of policing which "replaces an illegitimate, highly militarised police force with a more humane and people-oriented police service".6

The most basic objective of community policing is for the police service to ensure that both the new Constitution and the Bill of Rights is upheld and adhered to in a new democratic South Africa. This in turn means that this new philosophy of policing has as its basic goal the protection of the fundamental rights of all South Africans, rather than the protection of a minority grouping as was the case in the past. In fact, in order for the South African Police to provide a proper service, they have absolutely no option but to adopt the principals and practices of community policing. There is no other mechanism through which the police will be able to work effectively in communities without the threat of being physically attacked or regarded with deep suspicion in all operations that are carried out by the police service. Proper community policing in everyday police work will indicate to the public that the police are concerned with protecting every individual's human rights as stipulated in the Bill of Rights.

The key mechanism which has been proposed for ensuring that community policing takes place is the creation of Community Police Forums (CPF). Section 221(2) of the Interim Constitution provides for the establishment of CPFs at station level. These forums are meant to promote accountability of the police service, as well as co-operation of communities with the service. These forums should also allow for the evaluation and monitoring of the effectiveness and good conduct of the police service. Forums also have the right to suggest what policing priorities are in particular communities, and what the best mechanism for dealing with such problems are. These forums also have the power to ask for investigation into individual police officers, or the service as a whole, in local areas and make recommendations for changes which are believed to be in the interest of the community concerned.

While it is generally acknowledged that in principle CPFs are the best way forward in bringing together members of local communities and the police concerned to prevent and reduce crime, the proper creation and functioning of these forums has proved to be both difficult and frustrating for both members of the community and the police service. Most communities, particularly, those located in African townships, still have serious reservations about working with a police service which has not proven itself to be either accountable, or efficient in dealing with local issues regarding safety and security.

This continued mistrust is not surprising given the current public image of the police despite attempts at change. "Visible conflicts within the force, revelations of past police brutality and corruption, and ebbing police morale are further undermining prospects for the maintenance of order. Reform within the SAPS is progressing slowly against a backdrop of increased restiveness among officers of all ranks and the departure of significant numbers - since June last year, half of the general staff has resigned".7

The result of the lack of faith bestowed on the police by the community is that a number of local communities in Soweto, the East Rand and Midrand in Gauteng, but also in the Eastern and Western Cape, have decided to make use of their own alternative "policing" structures. In many of these areas, "peoples justice" or "kangaroo courts" have re-emerged; the reason cited by observers and those involved is the general inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the police service. In Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal, youth defence structures from a variety of political affiliations have emerged largely in response to inadequate or perceived partisan policing. While in some areas these youth structures work collaboratively with the police, this is often not the case. In white areas and business corporations, private security companies are being employed to supplement the role of the police service.

Secondly, when establishing forums, it is unclear to all parties concerned as to how to ensure that there is adequate representation of all interest groups in a given local area. For example, should political parties be represented at these forums, should social networks such as stokvels be represented, and how does one determine what constitutes an organisation or body that legitimates inclusion in CPFs? These questions are not clearly answered in the Interim Constitution. Thirdly, where CPFs do exist, there have been countless complaints that decisions made in the forum are not conveyed to all officers at a given police station. Community Police Officers (CPOs) are often selected based on their rank rather than their relationship with the community concerned. If these CPOs do not follow through the discussions held in forums, communities are likely to become more and more disillusioned with the whole conception of Community Police Forums; they will be seen as a waste of time and as a mechanism for improving the image of the police without having the muscle to ensure that decisions taken are acted upon.

Members of the SAPS have also been less than enthusiastic about the role of Community Police Forums. There are a number of reasons as to why this is the case. Firstly, police officers may feel that these forums have the potential of undermining the role and power of the police service by involving civilians in prioritising police activities and playing a central role in intelligence gathering and the arresting of suspected criminals. Most police officers in South Africa currently were trained in a manner which is not necessarily compatible with community policing. Community policing, therefore, is not a "soft option"; it is an extremely time consuming manner of policing which may involve the unlearning of much that was taught in the police colleges and later as active members of the South African Police. Furthermore, police officers in a number of areas may share the view of citizens that an inappropriate police officer was selected to represent the police service in Community Police Forums. CPOs who have poor relationships with the communities concerned may serve to decrease the relationship between the police and the community, rather than enhance this relationship. If CPOs do not report on decisions made in the forum, ordinary police officers are targeted by the community for not carrying out their side of the bargain. This too will make the work of the police extremely difficult to carry out.

Members of the two police unions has organised formations within the police, should play an active role in ensuring that CPFs are functioning and play a constructive role in local communities. Union members should also be voicing their concerns if they believe that inappropriate officers have been selected to represent the police service in forums. Union members, like any community resident has the right to attend and contribute in CPFs in the areas where they live and work. Good, well functioning community police forums should serve as mechanisms for improving police/community relations and should ultimately assist greatly in decreasing and preventing crime. This would serve to make the job of police officers in South Africa both more manageable, more pleasant, and less dangerous.

While the importance of community policing in general cannot be doubted, it should be openly noted that this model of policing, and more particularly the operation of CPFs was initiated in Western European and North American countries. These countries are significantly different from South Africa in a number of ways. However, there are two main differences that should be noted by the police unions and the police service at large. Firstly, South Africa undoubtably has a higher crime rate than most if not all these countries. Secondly, police in these countries are generally treated with great respect by both their employers and the communities in which they work. As a result they are generally well paid and looked after by the state. In South Africa, as is commonly known, police are neither given positive reinforcement neither by police management, nor by police employers, nor by the communities they are meant to service.

Police unions, while supporting any positive changes within the service, should ensure that police too have human rights like any other citizen or worker in South Africa. It should be stated upfront that police officers are likely to be more responsive to community needs and demands if they are granted respect and work under feasible and fair working conditions. The current low morale often spoken about in the police service can only serve to undermine attempts at community policing. An overworked, underpaid police officer who has been witness to endless violent crimes are unlikely to want to spend their spare time attending community police forums or making concerted efforts to build relationships in the areas in which they work and live.

Police management and employers need to be made very aware of the difficulties of community policing given a police service whose members are suffering from burn-out; post traumatic stress syndrome; financial concerns; and inadequate police facilities at most police stations, particularly those in black townships, and the rural areas. If the government is deeply concerned about crime as it should be, this should be indicated in policy making and this would effect the conditions of service of the police, as well as budgetary considerations. These are without doubt the kind of issues that should be high on the agenda of police unions in South Africa. Police unions should assert that with duties and responsibilities, come rights and acknowledgement.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The much debated and contested Truth and Reconciliation Act was finally passed last week in parliament. The President, Nelson Mandela, gave his personal assurance that he would do everything in his power to ensure that South Africans come to know the truth of their pasts so that all citizens are able to move into the future closing a chapter of South Africa's history characterised by gross violations of human rights. This, our President believes, will allow South Africa to move into a democracy having come to terms with our past. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the state security forces are going to come under most attack and scrutiny; this is likely to include the military, the police, and the intelligence structures. "Many of these institutions and personnel were allegedly directly involved in the clandestine torture, extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances of those involved in resistance to the system … . In addition, many of those who are now in power within the government of national unity, were themselves involved in the armed resistance to apartheid which, it is argued, also entailed the violations of human rights within the country and beyond its borders."8

The South African Police Service at large cannot deny its involvement in clandestine activities for the past four or five decades. It is this very history which has led to the general publics scepticism of the policing institution. While the police service has undergone a number of significant changes in the past year, the actual people who make up this service are for the most part the very same people who enforced "law and order" under the apartheid regime. Until such a time as the people of South Africa are given the facts about the historical role and activities, and are shown some form of remorse from the perpetrators of human rights violations, there will be little trust given to the SAPS. The police need to be "purged" of their ugly past, and allow South Africa at large to move forward transcending the division of the previous years and decades. It is important to note that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is not about vengeance and retribution; rather its aim is for reparation (or compensation), reconciliation and reconstruction. It should be understood that the Commission is in fact going to ensure that any people who were involved in gross violations of human rights in the past for political goals will not be victimised or persecuted. The Commission in fact compels the new government to grant amnesty to anybody who committed "political crimes" in the past. The objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are as follows:

  1. "To establish as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature and extent of gross violations of human rights which occurred between 1 March 1960 and 6 December 1994.

  2. To grant amnesty to persons who have committed acts associated with political objectives.

  3. To establish the fate or whereabouts of victims of gross violations of human rights and to assist in restoring their human and civil dignity by giving them an opportunity to testify as to their experiences and by recommending various measures aimed at providing reparation and rehabilitation to victims.

  4. To write a report which publicises the work and findings of the TRC and which contained a set of recommendations of measures aimed to prevent the future violation of human rights."9

The South African Police Service should see the TRC as an opportunity to cleanse itself of its illegitimate past. It provides the police service and its members with a chance to "come clean" and indicate to all South Africans its acknowledgement of past indiscretions and its willingness to repair a society torn apart by inequality and the denial of basic human rights. If members of the SAPS follow the procedures laid out in the TRC Act, they will be guaranteed a future free from fears of being prosecuted. It has the potential also to provide perpetrators of violations of human rights a chance of psychological healing, and freeing their conscience of hidden secrets of their own misdoings. It is for the good of South Africa as a whole, the SAPS itself, and the individual members of the security forces that the TRC proceed, and achieve its stated goals.

Of course, giving testimony to the Commission whether about oneself, ones colleagues, or ones superiors is going to be both difficult and painful. This cannot and should not be avoided. In fact, the police unions should encourage its members to play an active role in the TRC so that the SAPS can indicate its commitment to transparency, accountability and an overall concern for the citizens of South Africa. The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) resolved at its congress last month to give its full support to the Commission and to strengthen the popular call for public hearings. This they did knowing full well that a number of its members will most likely be implicated in the Commission. The South African Police Union (SAPU) should take the example set by Popcru and join hands with its sister union in supporting both the objectives and the processes of the Commission.

When SAPU was formed in 1993 it was accused of being a white management union whose primary aim was to undermine the activities and strengths of Popcru. Whether or not these allegations are true remains an area of debate and contention. Whatever the case, however, SAPU has proved to be a large and powerful union in the police service concerned with improving the basic working conditions of its membership. SAPU, while clearly not a "sweetheart union" at present still needs to indicate to the general public that it is concerned with reconciliation and the development of a human rights culture within the police service. The TRC provides SAPU with possibly the best and least threatening avenue to show that it is serious and sincere about its stated principles and policies aimed at ensuring that the police service to the best of their ability protect all South Africans from actual or potential threats to safety and security. Furthermore, the TRC if approached appropriately by both unions could serve to build unity within the police service where all members take responsibility both for the past wrong-doings of the South African Police Force, as well as joint responsibility for a brighter future where the police work collaboratively with the community to ensure peace, stability and development.

There are a number of concrete activities that SAPU can undertake to promote the TRC. Firstly, the union should be involved in educating members of the police service as to the role and nature of the TRC. Secondly, SAPU could provide members with the necessary tools for giving proper testimony before the Commission. Thirdly, SAPU could service its members by providing legal advice as to the appropriate channels for giving testimony. Fourthly, the union should provide members with a "safe place" where police officers can openly speak about their involvement in human rights abuses. Fifthly, the union should encourage members of the SAPS to support where possible victims of human rights abuses both within and outside the SAPS. (It should be remembered that the very members of your union may also be victims of gross human rights abuses who may need to tell their stories of pain and trauma). Finally, the union could urge members to offer their services where possible in witness protection systems; members of your union should indicate their willingness to ensure that survivors of human rights abuses are not victimised in any way either by members of the police service who are implicated, or by other members of the community.

In short, if the South African Police Union is sincere about its commitment to community policing as both a philosophy and a practice, as well as to ensuring that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are both protected and upheld, its active participation in the TRC cannot be avoided. The South African Police Service desperately needs the opportunity to rid itself of its shady past and to cultivate trusting relationships between the police and the communities they are servicing. It is only if this path is taken that police will be able to regain their dignity as citizens of South Africa and the bearers of a morality which is exemplary and shared by the majority of South Africans. Once this has been achieved, their is little doubt that the police service will be more effective in their fight against crime as well as their struggle for positive acknowledgement from both the general community and police management and employers. Effective policing is the key to justified demands for better pay and general improved working conditions in the police service.


Community policing, human rights and the Truth and Reconciliation are all intricately linked; they are all about working towards a society which guarantees dignity and protection for everyone who resides in South Africa. Furthermore, if the South African Police Union is bold in its support for both a transformed police service, and for reparation and reconstruction in South Africa, it will be well positioned to proudly lead the way towards a truly democratic and peaceful South Africa. Together with other collective bodies in the police service such as Popcru, the South African Police Union can help develop much needed unity within the police service while at the same time setting an example to all South Africans about the potential for non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic working relationships in the public sector and beyond. Divisions within the police service at present serves only to create insecurity and uncertainty in the minds of all civilians which regards the future, of a newly conceived democracy.


1 Mark Shaw, "Partners in Crime? Crime, Political Transformation and changing forms of police control", Centre for Policy Studies, Research Report no 39, June 1995.

2 ibid

3 ibid

4 See Servamus, November 1994.

5 This information was gathered from the Crime Information Analysis Centre (CIAC) of the South African Police Service.

6 See S. Rakgoadi, "Community Policing and Governance", Occasional paper written for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, July 1995.

7 See M. Shaw, opcit, pg 49.

8 See G. Simpson and P. van Zyl, "South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission", In Temps Modernes, No. 585.

9 See G. Simpson and P. van Zyl, opcit.

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