Policing South Africa: Reform and prospects.

Policing South Africa: Reform and prospects.

Marais, E. & Rauch, J. (1992). Policing South Africa: Reform and prospects. Paper presented at IDASA conference, Policing in South Africa in the 1990s, Van der Bijl Park, October.


Etienne Marais & Janine Rauch

Paper presented at IDASA conference: Policing in South Africa in the 1990s, Van der Bijl Park, October 1992.

Etienne Marais is a former Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Janine Rauch is an independent consultant.

Police Reform in the Recent Period

The most significant police reform initiatives of the post-De Klerk period are the SAP's Strategic Plan and the National Peace Accord provisions on policing.

The SAP Strategic Plan

The SAP Strategic Plan was developed as the police force's formal, organisational response to the changed social and political environment after February 1990. It was produced by the SAP's Efficiency Services Division after a process of "environmental scanning"1 and consultation. However, the form and timespan for this consultation did not facilitate adequate participation by all members of the force in developing the new agenda. Instead, the emphasis of this process was to educate about, and pressurise for, change – to "introduce the process of strategic management to the SAP and cultivate the acceptance of the necessity of the process".2

The existing strategic planning process demonstrates an unwillingness on the part of the police institution to relinquish its sole authority and to accept the challenges to traditional notions of policing which a through process of evaluation and planning would bring:

(T)here is reason to question the process by which the (SAP's Strategic) Plan was developed, and to evaluate the degree of internal and external environment scanning undertaken to provide the necessary accurate focus to the plan and its attendant strategies. … There is need to question the quantity and quality of external support being made available to (the SAP's Planning department). … Only one management consultant has been recruited to the assistance of the strategic planning venture. I question the decision to use a management consultant instead of a Strategic Planning Consultant who could provide the benefit of the latest intelligence and discipline surrounding this field, which, in the western world, has become a special management discipline used in support of organisational change and design.3

The strategic plan identifies, among others, the following problems:

  • rendering of service is not of an adequate standard;4
  • the SAP has a poor public image;5
  • there are also internal image and insecurity problems;6
  • manpower in the SAP is not deployed effectively;7
  • training is inadequate and insufficient;8
  • funds and other resources are not used efficiently.9

In response to these problems, the SAP management has adopted the following strategies for change:10

  • depoliticisation of the police force;
  • increased community accountability;
  • more visible policing;
  • establishing improved and effective management practice;
  • reform of the training system;
  • restructuring of the organisation.

Although the SAP Strategic Plan states that action planning takes place at every level, and that senior managers in the regions are taking responsibility for implementation of the plan, there is little public evidence of this new approach. This is partly because the spirit of the new strategic direction is not in line with key aspects of the SAP's existing policy. The dominant ethos within the police force is traditionalist, conservative, and resistant to change.

An unnecessary degree of secrecy has shrouded the development of the new Strategic Plan. This is partly because of a traditional suspicion within police circles about "outsiders" who wish to engage with the policing issues. This is further complicated by the SAP's unwillingness to allow any other parties to participate in the evaluation and planning process, or, indeed, to publicise its own new reform plan. This reluctance to engage with the broader public was noted by visiting Canadian Police Chief, W Harding:11

It became apparent to me that the degree of expert preparation and petition both on the part of individuals and individual organisations was not equally matched by a unified and broadened orchestrated response. In the face of a government and police service that closes its doors to their pleading, individual and orchestrated expressions of concern fall largely on deaf ears.

The recent announcements of "rationalisation" and the establishment of a new division of police-community relations, as well as the establishment of community liaison forums have their origin in the strategic plan.12 However the real effect of these moves, including the "retirement" of 26 police generals is likely to be limited.

The announcement that 13 police generals were to be retired was variously described in the press as "axing", "retrenchment" and "retirement". Despite the fact that this move was seen to be related to police reform, and a positive change in the top structure of the police, the commissioner made it clear that those leaving had done nothing wrong, and had given loyal service. However the departure of half the generals and a number of other senior officers over the age of fifty, has the obvious advantage of speeding up the process of vertical movement in the force and hence of bringing new and younger leaders into key positions. However, some of those taking the early retirement package are open-minded and enthusiastic about the new South Africa, and have decided to opt out because of the frustration of trying to chart a new path in the context of the inertia associated with a bureaucratic, conservative and authoritarian institution.

The establishment of a new division of a new division of Police-Community relations is a positive sign in that it reflects the need on the part of the SAP to take police-community relations more seriously. The division will include four sub-divisions: Police-Community relations, Public Relations, Internal Liaison and NPA Coordination. This division will also be responsible for a strategic planning component, conflict evaluation and the co-ordination of the SAP's participation in commissions of enquiry.

It was also suggested that the division would be headed by one of the new "black generals". However, two potential problems with the move can be identified. Firstly, although a special division of police-community relations is needed, the organisational structure of the SAP does not facilitate easy interchange between the different divisions. "Area specialisation" as opposed to "task specialisation" is a key component of community policing and suggests that the current police structure of six parallel "specialist" divisions is inappropriate for community policing. This problem has already been demonstrated in relation to the Internal Stability Division (ISD). Good relations which exist between local station commanders and communities have often been ignored when the ISD has been sent into the area – leading to a breakdown in trust and co-operation.

The second weakness is that the police generally understand police community relations in the context of the authority of the police. The police is the "dominant partner" in the police-community relationship and the community is not seen to have the right (or indeed the capability) to co-determine the nature of policing practice. An example of the effects of this in practice is that the local level "liaison forums", established as part of a police-community relations programme, have been hampered by the insistence on the part of the police that all meetings are chaired by the police. Indeed the emphasis for police-community forums appears to be on quantity rather than quality. The SAP tend to meet with many organisations on a bilateral basis, rather than in multi-party representative forums.

There is little evidence that the police are generally aware of the issues of representivity, or that forums lead to substantive input and positive responses on the part of the police. This is borne out by the experiences of those involved in the Local Dispute Resolution Committees (LDRC's) of the National Peace Accord. As with many liaison forums the police are often unwilling (or unable because of organisational policy) to regard the views of the "community representatives" as necessarily relevant or deserving of an organisational response. Indications are, for instance, that investigations which LDRC's regard as vital for the preservation of the peace are not necessarily prioritised by local police officers.

The National Peace Accord

The involvement of the National Party Government and the South African Police as signatories of the National Peace Accord in September 1991 was of great significance for policing in South Africa. The State, which had consistently portrayed political violence as a "tribal" phenomenon, and "black-on-black" violence as something peculiar to the townships, was acknowledging that it is not merely a referee, but a significant player in the violence. The fact that a large part of the Accord deals with police practice also represented a formal acknowledgement of the police force role in the violence.

The Peace Accord introduced a range of new structures and methods of operation which the police would have to observe; and which the Nationalist government would have to be seen to enforce.

Although these mechanisms for control and monitoring of the police were difficult to accept for the rank-and-file membership of the force, they did reflect the reform agenda of certain sectors of the SAP leadership. For example, a Police Board, police-community liaison forums, and a revamped public complaints procedure were all ideas which had previously been laid out in the SAP's strategic plan of 1991.13 The fact that the SAP's vision was so influential in constructing the policing sections of the Peace Accord was largely the result of the fact that the Nationalist/SAP negotiators had the experience and expertise in policing which other parties lacked.

It is still early to expect the Peace Accord to have resulted in visibly improved police conduct; the process of circulating the code through the SAP took a number of months, it was not accompanied by an educational process; and only one intake of student constables has studied the code as part of their training curriculum. However, the particularly serious incidents of police misconduct that have been reported in the intervening months suggest that the code is not having much restraining or moderating effect. The technical aspects of the Codes, such as the commitment to proper identification of police personnel and vehicles, have been most successfully implemented.

One of the major problems with the Code was the SAP's traditionally secret approach to its implementation. Although the Ministry of Law and Order said that any members of the force who refused to sign the code would be fired, there were no reports of any such action. Given the reputation of white members of the SAP for right-wing political sympathies, the claim that every member of the SAP signed the Code was difficult to believe. If the process of circulating the Code and disciplining those who refused to sign had been more public, perhaps the community could have had greater confidence in the Ministry's claim.

Police spokesmen, at the time of the implementation of the Accord, were also quick to claim that the Code contained nothing substantially new or different from previous SAP codes. This could explain the ease of the Ministry's statement that all members of the force had signed the code without incident. It is difficult to believe that the police view this Code, formulated in negotiation with the ANC and Inkatha, no differently to the previous codes which were formulated in the old apartheid discourse. If, however, this is the case, then this would support the view that reform strategies based on formal codes or rules have little impact on the prevailing SAP culture.

A number of independent, international missions have visited South Africa in the period since the Peace Accord was signed; and their reports make serious allegations of police misconduct in relation to the violence. Commenting directly on the new SAP Code of Conduct contained in the Accord, the International Commission of Jurists' Report describes the new Code as "an excellent document", but adds that "unfortunately there is a vast gulf between police practice and the Code."14 This suggests that patterns of police conduct continue to be dictated primarily by the traditional police culture. If "political discourse, at least in part, provides motivation and justification for organisational police deviance",15 current trends in police deviance indicate that the political discourse "on the ground" in the SAP has not changed substantively since 1990. This suggests a contradiction between the reformist agendas of certain sections of the police leadership, and their real ability to change the "heart" of the police force.

Confidence in the Peace Accord as a whole has dropped in the months since September 1991, but this has been especially true in relation to policing. This contributes to a cynicism about the possibility for real reform of the police institution, and growing concern about the discrepancy between the reform rhetoric of the SAP leadership and police practice "on the ground".

Neither the SAP's Strategic Plan, nor the Peace Accord, have succeeded in effecting real changes in police operations. This can, in part, be attributed to the newness of these programmes, and to the resistance of the police culture to change. However, both these initiatives are further hindered by a perception of them as "political" interventions into policing. There are many members of the police force, at all levels, who are resistant to the broader process of political reform initiated by President De Klerk in February 1990; and any attempts at police reform which are seen to be part of that process, are thus resisted by them. Weitzer pointed out in 1990 that changes should be introduced sensitively by politicians: "It is vital that police managers and government ministers explain fully the rationale for each change to all members of the force. In addition, the changes should be introduced gradually, giving members time to adjust to the new demands and expectations".16

Other Reform Issues

The key political significance of racial segregation and discrimination would suggest that the SAP should have paid particular attention to these issues in its attempts to adapt to the new South Africa. However a concern for these problems has been minimal. The first "integrated" intake into basic training took place nearly two years after FW de Klerk's landmark speech. However, this process is neither complete not unproblematic. There are still serious disparities in the racial composition of the staff bodies of the training colleges, and in the provision of facilities to the different colleges.17

Despite that fact that the problem of discriminatory policing has received enormous attention internationally over the last twenty years, there is no evidence of similar concern on the part of the SAP. Questions on the problem this poses are invariably met with the response that the South African Police treat all race groups equally and that there is no discrimination internally. The "invisibility" of this problem is related to the very hierarchical nature of the organisation and the fear which many black members of the force have of the consequences of speaking out about racism. The particular racial orientation of the police also remains a problem in relation to the policing of violence.

An examination of the views of members of the police force towards the violence would suggest that the proclaimed commitment at a public level to deal with the problem of political violence is not translated into an adequate process of planning and the commitment of adequate resources.18

Police officers interviewed by us during 1991 see violence as a "political problem" which "the parties must sort out". It is also seen as a "cultural thing, which goes back hundreds of years". These perceptions result in the attitude that the role of criminal investigation and conviction in resolving the violence is limited. This is reinforced by the Minister's statements that the police can't solve the problem of violence on their own. There is no doubt that the number of murders where investigation has borne fruit is a small proportion of the total.19

Despite these problems, there can be no doubt that political control over, and interventions into, policing, will continue to be the major sources of impetus for police reform in the immediate future. Other routes for reform and other means of constraining the police culture will be discussed below, but it is clear that legal, political and local-level forms of accountability must all be present of there is to be real change in policing in South Africa. If these interventions are to make any real impact on policing, they will have to be accompanied by an education programme for members of the police force, and not issued simply as orders.

Historical and Ideological Tradition

The characteristics of policing and the nature of the police-community relationship in South Africa have, to a large extent, been determined by the legacy of what can be called "colonial" and "apartheid policing".

Early police forces in South Africa were little more than paramilitary forces which were established to protect the interests of early settlers from the "threats" posed by indigenous people.20 These police forces were not police forces as they are understood in democratic societies, but were established to protect the interests of a particular sector of society – and were thus central to the process of colonial conquest and racially based oppression and discrimination which has characterised South African history.

The SAP was founded and developed within the context of racially exclusive power and racial discrimination of the colonial period after Union. During the later years of National Party rule, beginning in the 1940s, the role of the SAP in relation to the black community was defined in terms of discriminatory legislation which was designed to control and regulate the lives and activities of South Africa's black population.21 In addition, the criminalisation of many forms of political activity in the black community meant that the police served to protect the apartheid system of government through intimidation, coercion and force. This meant that the black community regarded the police as an agency which was designed to frustrate their aspirations. In many communities this perception continues to the present.

In both the colonial and apartheid periods, black people were viewed by the state as "inferior", and racial oppression routinely led to the degradation of black life. In the context of police power and the legalised use of force for the purposes of dealing with political opposition, brutality towards the black community was tacitly condoned, and seldom resulted in disciplinary action.

Under PW Botha's leadership, the National Party adopted the philosophy of "total strategy" in response to what they perceived of as "total war". This lead to the establishment of the National Security Management System whereby almost every facet of South African life was profoundly influenced by security considerations.22 At this time the SAP had already been involved in the Rhodesian bush war and, during the late 70s and early 80s, were drawn into fighting in Namibia and Angola. This process of military involvement lead the police force, and its members, to associate good policing with an overtly military role.

Years of hard won-experience, gained especially since 1966 in Rhodesia and elsewhere, improved training methods, modern equipment and modernized counter-insurgency techniques have all contributed to the respect the South African Police enjoys throughout the world today.23

The "total strategy" doctrine influenced policing in a profound way which determined both the formal organisational goals and the development of the police in South Africa.24 Through this process, the SAP became increasingly drawn into the "counter-revolutionary war" both domestically and regionally.25 The adoption of the prevailing doctrines of counter-insurgency warfare, as developed by the US in the arenas of Korea and Vietnam involved the development of a whole host of strategies and methods, including the reliance on clandestine operations which are anathema to those committed to accountable policing in a civilian context.

During the 1980s, the counter-insurgency role of the police and the army was extended into the black townships of South Africa. One of the consequences of this was the extensive use of township-based "informers" to monitor the activities of a wide range of individuals and organisations. The association of informers and the intelligence network more generally with assassinations, torture and "dirty tricks" has resulted in negative attitudes towards those who co-operate with the police.

Thus the militarised origin of the South African Police in colonial forces, was further amplified through the involvement of the police in regional military conflict. In this period, the SAP was a key component of the counter-insurgency forces defending the apartheid system against a perceived "total onslaught" The threat analysis which saw the activities of black groups fighting for democratic rights as necessarily part of a treasonous conspiracy coincided neatly with the ideas about the racial inferiority of black people which remain the basis of racial discrimination. Discriminatory policing and the abuse of power in relation to the black community thus became conflated with the police forces's fight against the perceived "enemies" of the state.

There is no escaping from history or tradition. Instead, we would argue that there is much to be learnt from the history of policing in South Africa. We would not agree with a recent SAP document which states that "history must be forgotten".26

The history of inequitable and ineffective policing offers many lessons to the police officers of the future in the area of "what not to do". But, in addition, there are important examples in the recent past of "good policing" and these should not be discarded with the bathwater of apartheid history. These include cases where the SAP have been involved in making peace, such as in areas of Natal, and prevented violence, such as the two marches in Witbank, and managed public order situations like the marches through city centres when the ANC was unbanned in 1990 and the recent march on the Union buildings.

Beyond remembering these "good cases", we need to look at creating a new policing tradition in a democratic South Africa. The process of transition, though it provokes fear and insecurity, can itself contribute to the creation of a new ethos. The management of the transition for the police force is therefore itself a crucial process, on which the success or failure of future policing may rest.

A key element of the process will be to make explicit a new set of values for the police force, and the creation of mechanisms which will build confidence and morale. If members of the force feel positive about the changes, and if they feel "ownership" of the process, they are more likely to contribute to the development of a new tradition in policing.

The Relationship between Police and State

Historically there has developed a very close relationship between the "security establishment" and the state. This was most evident in the development of the National Security Management system. Through these structures the security community, including the police, played a central role in the determination and implementation of state strategies. In the ideological war of the 70s and 80s, the police were not accountable to the state in the conventional sense, but were virtually inseparable from the state. Although FW de Klerk has to some extent civilianised the state, and made the police accountable to non-security interests, the power of the military and the police within the state remain significant. Accountability to the Minister of Law and Order has always, under the National Party been a two-way process, with the police force acting as an independent stakeholder in the conglomeration of different interests within the state.

In practise this means that successive Ministers of Law and Order have seldom acted boldly in relation to the police force, and in fact personal support from the police leadership has been an important prerequisite to success as a minister. Recent attempts to assert cabinet authority over the police have resulted in a blurring of the roles of the minister and the police commissioner. Indeed the ministry is given stability by the SAP members staffing it, while the "political" heads come and go with frequency. The Minister is almost entirely dependent on information from the General Staff of the police. The tradition of unity and loyalty among the senior state officials means that outside criticism of the police force is seldom, if ever given equal consideration to that given to the counter from the police leadership to such criticism. The police force continues to respond with alacrity to the political priorities of the National Party. Thus when the NP placed a general amnesty on the negotiating agenda, the SAP immediately announced that they were investigating "crimes" committed by the ANC in the early-to-mid eighties.

Another crucial question is the NP's agenda in relation to transition. While the notion of a "interim government" has been accepted by the NP, there is evidence that they do not consider this as necessarily leading to a loss of control over the police on the part of the Government. Indeed, loss of control of the police would seriously weaken the NP's hand during the process of negotiations. At the same time, it is clear that the NP and police leadership see the need to make the police force more credible and legitimate for all South Africans. This has motivated the initiation or acceptance of the recent reforms.

Uncertainty about the future and the possible control exercised over the police force by an interim government or new government unsympathetic to the interests of the white community has given added impetus to the emphasis on the "independence" and "professionalisation" of the police. These terms have become central to the state and police force's own rhetoric of police reform.

How the Police See Themselves

The way in which the police force sees itself informs the way in which it responds to outside pressures and demands. It also allows us to understand the way in which the police force sees the transitional process from "apartheid" to "democracy", and hence, the way in which it views police "reform".

The fact that the police force may respond differently to certain forms of crime can only be understood in terms of the basic assumptions which inform the practise of policing.

The police force sees its own relationship to society in terms of the "consensus" model of policing, despite the fact that the majority of people have never voted for the political system on which law and order is based. According to this view the police are delegated power and authority from the state on the basis of a broad consensus about the nature of the social order to be policed. The role of the police is thus seen to be to impartially enforce a universally unproblematic legal system. This view draws from the liberal model of policing which is dominant in democratic societies, and tends to place the police on a moral pedestal and emphasise the notions of independence, professionalism and an apolitical police force. This very "apolitical" view of policing inhibits questions about the moral basis of the social order itself and thus supports ignorance about the system of apartheid, and its effects on the police force. Apartheid is widely viewed within the police as a thing of the past, as the laws which "defined" it have been removed. The fact that the police force is accountable to a racially based, minority government is not regarded by most senior officers as a problem, or as conflicting with the basic principles of policing in a democracy. These beliefs appear to have been significantly aided by isolation from the developments in policing elsewhere in the world, where, for instance, police training and professionalisation has undergone substantial evolution.

The view of the SAP as "apolitical" is justified on the basis of laws preventing members from involvement in political parties and is reinforced by the particular doctrine of science dominant in the institutions which have provided the intellectual basis for policing in South Africa. This "positivist" epistemology argues that politically independent, or value-free science can be attained through "correct methodology" which is narrowly defined in terms of rules about data collection. Police "science" has lent substantial support to the false notion of policing as a neutral and apolitical activity.27

Also related to the idea of value-free police science is the way in which "perceptions" of policing are seen. The positivist psychology of perception which forms the basis of a theory of police-community relations, suggests (what is a false dichotomy) that community perceptions of the police may be "false" while police science and its use of statistics provides "facts" about policing. A central motivation for police-community relations and public relations is thus to provide "the facts" in order that the false perceptions of the community may be corrected.

These beliefs about policing, facts and perceptions help insulate the police from the effects of public pressure, and ultimately reinforce a deep resistance to reform. They amount to a deeply held belief (in some policing circles, particularly among older members) that there is in fact very little wrong with the police force at all.

The lingering effects of the primary threat analysis of the 80s, namely that of a communist inspired "swart gevaar", continue to allow the SAP to see criticisms and pressure as primarily arising from a political agenda of "undermining the credibility of the SAP". This allows the police leadership to easily fob off criticism and to assert the correctness of its approach.

Management and Leadership

The police organisation can be characterised as military bureaucracy, with an autocratic and regulatory style of management. This means that the organisation is resistant to change and very slow to adapt to new circumstances. The very hierarchical and top-heavy nature of the organisation also mean that communication channels are often clumsy and ineffective.

The legacy of the total onslaught era and particularly the dominant "intelligence" role for the police, has also been profound. Intelligence gathering within the context of an autocratic bureaucracy tends to result in the intelligence being filtered in ways which are self-fulfilling. Intelligence which refutes the dominant views of the nature of the threat to be countered is suppressed, while intelligence which reinforces the perspectives of the police leadership is rewarded and thus exaggerated. The result of this is an increasing isolation of the leadership from concrete reality – and from the ground level problems in the police force.

The personnel structure in the SAP is "rank" based and promotions are based on seniority rather than the skills required for specific posts. Promotions have, for many years, been based upon achievements in the field of political repression rather than an ability to manage within a conventional police agency.

The present climate of uncertainty about the future, effectively makes the police bureaucracy more cautious, membership more defensive and the leadership more uncertain about where they are going. This has had two effects. The first is that it has negatively affected morale in the police force. In addition it has served to strengthen the "esprit de corps" and sense of solidarity among some sectors of the police – particularly those for whom the future is most threatening.

The rank-based post structure has, in the context of a lack of public accountability also resulted in a "generalist" approach to leadership. Promotion to specialist management positions is not generally dependent on specialised knowledge. This is not a problem on its own, but when combined with an "autocratic regulatory" management style leads to a failure to bring specialised knowledge to bear on management issues which require it. The absence of a culture of collective leadership or participatory management means that suggestions and recommendations from lower ranking officers with direct knowledge of specific problems is often ignored. This is also true in relation to the expertise and research input from both the Institute for Behavioural Sciences and the Department of Planning and Research (SAP).

Unlike many other police forces internationally,28 the SAP has made scant use of the outside expertise and civilian skills available to it. The attitude of leadership to research and the development of skills is at best ambiguous – many senior officers, without "formal" educational qualifications seem threatened by the younger generation of better trained middle managers.

The focus of management is on the mechanics of administration, and crisis management, rather than on the managerial problems encountered within a complex social and organisational environment. At the same time senior officers feel free to interfere at almost every level – a process which undermines the confidence and responsibility of middle and junior managers.

The result is that management is generally ad-hoc in nature, and consists of responding to crises, rather than proactive and systematic assessment of areas where organisational development needs to be pursued.

Indications are that there is an absence of effective management at senior level. Management training has itself been devised within the context of an absence of meaningful organisational assessment and by individuals without the analytic skills necessary to devise relevant police management programmes, particularly in the context of the current crisis.

Training is still military in character and focuses disproportionate attention on the use of firearms, military discipline and the socialisation of recruits in to the police culture. Neither basic training, nor in-service training adequately cover police-community relations, ethical problems in policing, police accountability and assessment of policing services and strategies.

Retraining and reorientation of the police force is obviously of vital importance. Existing management training is not sufficiently skills-orientated or in touch with the external environment to equip the police manager to cope with the rapidly changing demands of police reform, or to allow the senior leadership to direct a process of organisational change.

At the management level, profound changes are required to the organisational structure, the processes of promotion and appointment, as well as to the dominant management style of the organisation. Restructuring and demilitarisation of the police force should possibly start with a drastic reduction in the size of head office, which would force decentralised responsibility and allow the limited resources to be more usefully applied to organisational assessment, skills development and a more meaningful strategic planning process.

The structure of the police force should be rationalised so that policing in a geographical area is under unified command. Despite the Minister's recent announcements about rationalisation and decentralisation, there are still major problems caused by a multitude of parallel command hierarchies. The activities of Visible Policing, the Internal Stability Division and the Crime Information Service (formally the SB) are not adequately coordinated; and may in fact, conflict with one another.

The role of outside expertise in the restructuring and reform of policing is also significant. The police force is becoming more responsive to inputs and advice from outside. Experts like Dr Waddington and domestically based academics and researchers have had an impact on the police organisation. The practises and experiences of other police agencies are taken seriously by police leadership, and can serve as a beacon for police reform. It must, however, be noted that policing models can seldom be imported wholesale into the South African context, while ideas, mechanisms and principles can. There is much relevant expertise domestically which should be utilized more. In particular the management of the change process in large organisations and the management of public sector institutions come to mind.

The recruitment of specialists from a range of disciplines does not only have the potential to impact on the management of the SAP – it also provides an opportunity to make the senior leadership of the SAP more representative of South African society.

In the longer term, there is a need to establish independent academic capacity to analyses, critique and train in the area of police organisation and police management.

The Membership of the South African Police Forces

There is a common perception of the South African policeman as a white Afrikaner. In reality, over 50% of the members of the SAP are black, as are practically all the members of the homeland forces. However, that dominant image does tell us a lot about the dominant police culture and the public face of policing. It is also suggestive of the experience of black members of the police force.

The argument that there is such a thing as a pathological "police personality" has long since been discarded by social scientists. However, this is not to say that policework and police organisations do not attract and create a certain type of person. Indeed, the transformation of a civilian with an individual identity, into someone with a police identity, underpins the police culture and formal training. Police forces tend to be conservative, traditionalist institutions in society – after all, their role is to defend the status quo. The SAP's particular history has meant that it has attracted and recruited members who generally feel comfortable with that history and the modes of behaviour it creates. This applies equally to black and white members of the SAP.

Since the 1960s, members of the SAP have been involved in the "counter-insurgency war" and have seen active combat duty on South Africa's borders or in the townships. This experience has a direct impact on the individuals concerned, as well as shaping the style of policing more generally. Members of the SAP recruited and trained in the last decade have been exclusively subject to this discourse of policing, unlike older members who may have been involved in ordinary crime combatting work before the rise of apartheid policing. As we know from America's experience of Vietnam, the symptoms of "Combat fatigue" or post-traumatic stress disorder often present only much later in life. Although the SAP is beginning to address the problems of occupational stress in relation to members who are working in violent situations at present, there is little concern to address potential problems which may result from a whole generation of policemen who participated in a war.

The most powerful men in the SAP, the Commissioner and the two Deputy Commissioners, all come from strong Security Branch backgrounds. This is part of the legacy of the apartheid security era, when the SB was the most prestigious career path within the force. One of the major obstacles to reform of the SAP is the intransigence of the leadership. Because of the centralised and hierarchical nature of the police organisation, the General Staff of the SAP, consisting of over 50 Generals, is the major decision-making forum. The majority of the Generals have earned their seniority through sheer staying power and political loyalty, rather than by virtue of specialised management skills or qualities of leadership.

Many of the proposals for change which come from middle-level management are vetoed or watered down by the Generals. That this problem is acknowledged by the political leadership was recently demonstrated by the effective retrenchment of a number of senior officers, including 13 members of the General Staff.

We are often asked whether it is possible to transform the police forces in South Africa with their existing personnel intact, or whether it would be necessary to recruit a largely new police membership. The simple answer is that the SAP and homeland forces are the only police officers we have. Unlike the military, where exiled movements had military wings which will be incorporated into existing armed forces, there is no parallel group of police officers. The problem, then, is how to deal with existing members of these forces. There a number of parallel ways of addressing this problem.


It is clear that the SAP's recruitment policy and practice need to change. In general, applicants should be selected on the basis of their aptitudes and skills for policework. These skills would include communication, leadership, care and support, community awareness and decision-making. We would argue that recruitment, like other areas of policing, needs to be informed by a set of new values for the police. On this basis, recruits would have to adhere to this new set of values. In a sense, all we are doing is replacing an old set of unstated values, (apartheid values), with a new set of democratic values.

One of the problems with SAP recruiting strategies is that recruits, both black and white, have traditionally been drawn from the rural areas and conservative communities. One way of transforming the membership of the police is to begin to select people from a community to serve in that community. This could repair much of the damage to police-community relations caused by mistrust, and would allow more informed and sensitive community policing.


It would be idle to pretend that all existing members [of the police force], including middle and senior ranks, will be responsive to change. It can be safely anticipate that some will be resistant to change: some because of their inexperience and incapacity to manage change; and some for more sinister, obstructive and mischievous reasons promoted by their yearning for the preservation of culture, philosophies, procedures and practices of the old regime. Those who fall in the last category must be ruthlessly rooted out and their services dispensed with.29

To remove the traditional leadership of the SAP, and create a more dynamic organisational environment for change, a new government will have to institute a mechanism for selective retrenchment. (This has already been initiated by the SAP's "early retirement" offer, and was achieved in Namibia by giving some senior officers "medical discharges".)

Criteria for desirable future police leadership should be drawn up, and used both as a basis for both "dispensing with the services of some" and for promotion of other members of the force. Here we come back to the idea of a set of values for the new SAP.

A crucial element of this process is the simultaneous capacity building of a new generation of managers. If this is effective, it will also serve to contain feelings of anxiety and insecurity in the force as a whole.

Employment Equity

There is a very prevalent belief among white officers that there is no racial discrimination or racism within the police force. However, this belief is negated by the voices of black members who speak of inequitable and sometimes outrageously discriminatory treatment by their white colleagues. The statistics, too, speak for themselves – only 5% of the officer corps of the SAP is black, and there has never been a black General.

The legacy of apartheid in state bureaucracies necessitates a program of affirmative action in all branches of the civil service. However, this is particularly important in the case of the police force, as it cannot hope to function effectively without the confidence of the community, and this confidence is boosted by a visibly representative police force.

We would argue that both short and long-term programmes of employment equity need to be devised for the police. These would have to take into account the organisational history of the SAP and homeland forces, and the poor education systems to which black South Africans have been subject. An employment equity programme is a long-term strategy to achieve both representivity and a more efficient organisation which allows individuals to achieve their potential.


There is a dire need for improvement in all aspects of police training in South Africa. Our research on basic training in the SAP highlighted the need for a skills-orientated, problem-solving type training, and this would apply equally to all forms of advanced training.

Training is really the "action" part of an "affirmative action" programme. Substantial resources will have to be devoted to the training of middle-level and junior officers, particularly the black members whose career development has been retarded by racial discrimination within the police force.


All these mechanisms are informed by the notion of representivity. Representivity is important for all parts of the civil service, in order to create legitimacy for the state, but it is particularly crucial for the police. This is because the relationship of accountability between the police and the public is very direct – we are giving these people guns and the power to infringe our rights, and we must be absolutely confident that they represent our interests. For this reason, we would argue that affirmative action programmes need to be based on criteria which are related to values, rather than simple racial categories.

What we mean here is that we want a police force which represents the values which we share and prioritise in the future democratic South Africa. The police beliefs and values would include:

  • upholding the law and the democratic constitution;
  • upholding the Bill of rights and protecting the rights granted to citizens;
  • treating every citizen, in every encounter, with equal respect;
  • caring about the community's quality of life;
  • being accountable and accessible to the public;
  • behaving in a professional manner with integrity and honesty;
  • prioritizing human life and minimising the use of lethal force.

Civil Society

One of the major problems for effective police reform in South Africa is the lack of knowledge and experience of policing in the broader population. Because of the historical style of policing in South Africa, police expertise has been tightly controlled by the National party government and its functionaries.

If we consider that legitimate and effective policing is essentially based on a partnership between the police and communities, then it is important that all the communities of South Africa are empowered to engage with the police and to grapple with difficult policing issues if they are to have any impact on the process of transforming policing. We believe that police reform which comes "from above", like changing the laws or governing structures of the police force, will have little impact on policework as it is experienced on the ground by ordinary people unless those people are also involved in the process. This is what we mean by democratising policing – that members of the public able to play a real role in determining police policy and practice.


The central problem with police reform is perhaps that of the different "discourses" within which police reform is given meaning. The dominant existing perceptions within National Party and police circles see the problem of police reform as a technical adjustment. Within the view of policing as a neutral, technical function of the state, issues of organisational culture, political sensitivity and accountability are generally overlooked. The opposition movements on the other hand, tend see the police institution as homogenous and monolithic. For them, the role of political control at the top of the institution is over-emphasised, both as explaining current police behaviour, and as the major focus of police reform.

An important limiting factor in the reform of policing in South Africa is that the police "constituency", although not involved in the negotiations30 directly, remains a player in the process of transition. This means that we need to concern ourselves (in the interim period) – with finding ways to "unlock" the various channels through which reform could take place.

The oft posed question of whether the government (and specifically de Klerk) has the will to reform the police force is, in our view, rather simplistic. It is premised on two questionable assumptions:

  1. That the state understands what needs to happen in order to reform the SAP. In reality, the National Party sees policing as a technical function of the state, whereas we would regard policing as socially constructed. The complex of discourses around apartheid, ethnicity, violence and policing, discourage meaningful changes to the status quo.

  2. That the state actually commands the SAP. The complex power relations between the security establishment and the cabinet, combined with the police force's monopoly of information about policing, means that the state is rather constrained in its ability to intervene in police practise.

Important mechanisms which can contribute to the unlocking of the process of police reform are the following: (while some of these issues appear to address the content of police reform, they are unlocking mechanisms in the sense that they serve to change the relationship between the police and broader society and hence will affect the way in which decisions are made within the police institution).

  • The establishment of a new locus of control of the police which can properly place the police under more representative civilian control. This would take the form of a multi-party structure to which the police force is accountable. Such a structure needs to be invested with the powers and capacity to conduct its own assessment of both police policy and practise levels.31

  • The utilisation of expertise from outside the police force and a more "open" policy towards independent research into policing. The utilisation of outside expertise can take the form of lateral entry of civilians into the police force as well as co-operative research and development with outside agencies.

  • Expert commissions initiated by the Police Board, Goldstone Commission, National Peace Accord or other credible bodies, which can focus independent expertise on aspects of police policy and reform issues.

  • Confidence building measures, particularly those initiated by the liberation movement to assure members of the police force about their future within a democratic police force.

  • Meaningful engagement at all levels between police and communities. This requires that the purposes of community liaison forums are defined and that participants are informed about the possibilities and limitations of such engagement. It also requires that mechanisms of public scrutiny police actions and practises (some of which have already been negotiated) are set in motion. The empowerment of members of community structures (such as representatives on LDRC's can significantly improve the way in which such structures impact on policing.

  • The promotion of international exchange with other police agencies. This will serve to give SAP members a broader vision of policing and bring them up to date with international developments.


1 See SAP Strategic Plan p3, which states that scanning took place during one month.

2 SAP Strategic Plan p3

3 Harding 1991:17

4 SAP Strategic Plan p5

5 SAP Strategic Plan p7

6 SAP Strategic Plan p7

7 SAP Strategic Plan p8

8 SAP Strategic Plan p9

9 SAP Strategic Plan p10

10 SAP Strategic Plan p13

11 Harding 1991:3

12 Minister of Law and Order 27 August 1992

13 See Marais and Rauch (1991)

14 International Commission of Jurists 1992:12

15 Steytler 1990:110

16 Weitzer 1990

17 Rauch 1992

18 Waddington 1992:46

19 Buthelezi M 1992

20 Van Heerden 1986:31

21 Van Der Spuy 1988

22 Seegers 1991

23 See SAP Yearbook 1991

24 ibid

25 Dippenaar 1988

26 SAP response to Janine Rauch's "South African Police Basic Training: A preliminary assessment", September 1992.

27 See Haysom & Marais 1992

28 Brown 1991

29 Pickover D 1992

30 While not formally represented the police have played a key role in negotiations. Bilateral talks between the ANC and the Government often include senior police officers and the police played a key role in the formulation of the National Peace Accord.

31 Deliberations at CODESA have in principle agreed to the notion of a Multi-party council on security which would serve such a function.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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