Racism, Brutality and Corruption are the Key Human Rights Challenges Facing the Transformation of the SAPS

Racism, Brutality and Corruption are the Key Human Rights Challenges Facing the Transformation of the SAPS

An appreciation of human rights has failed to take proper root throughout the SAPS despite the transformation that has so far taken place. Key indicators that reflect this unfortunate reality can be found in the problems of racism, brutality and corruption that presently confront the SAPS. Huge restructuring exercises have taken place resulting in different uniforms, a de-militarised rank system, revised training curriculums and new policing priorities and objectives. However, these elements of the police transformation process are primarily structural in nature and have not significantly led to changes in police behaviour. Furthermore, the main civilian oversight bodies the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) and the Secretariat for Safety and Security have inadequate resources and powers to provide the kind of assistance needed in curbing police abuses of power.

A key failure of the police transformation process has been the lack of changes in the values and attitudes of a significant proportion of police members. In August 2000 the National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi sent out a circular stating that aspects such as rank, overall neatness, mutual respect, self-esteem and honour are being blatantly ignored by the majority of police members. While this is indicative of concern by police leadership with such problems, a more coherent and focused approach is needed.

The main factor keeping attention away from these problems is the high crime rate in South Africa. In needing to respond to the concerns about crime, the government has to rely on the police. It appears as if it has therefore been reluctant to take the kinds of drastic measures needed to root out the internal problems confronting the SAPS for fear of further undermining morale. Instead we have seen resources being poured into initiatives such as 'Operation Crackdown' that tend to boost morale amongst the police and public with the dangerous trade-off of replacing substantive policing with visible policing.

As part of the National Crime Combating Strategy, 'Operation Crackdown' forms part of the SAPS aim to stabilize crime within three years so that normalised policing can occur. Even if this is successful, it is unlikely that normalised policing would be effective while serious internal police problems persist. The recently televised Dog Unit incident involving six white police members who goaded their dogs into viciously attacking three defenseless Mozambique immigrants proves useful in highlighting the three fundamental problems that continue to undermine the SAPS ability to effectively fight crime.

For most South Africans the Dog Unit incident immediately turned the spotlight into racism in the SAPS. While there are members in the SAPS who express their racist beliefs through an abuse of their police powers, racism in the SAPS takes many forms.

Structural and subtler forms of racial discrimination need to be acknowledged. That there is only one black policeman belonging to a Dog Unit involved in the incident is an example of structural racial discrimination. However tackling racial discrimination of this kind is a difficult an exercise as it is tightly entwined in the culture of the SAPS relating to training, induction, selection and support. Until these issues are adequately addressed, there is a risk of racial dynamics overshadowing most of what occurs between police members of different race groups. In these circumstances the internal control of police abuse of power leading to human rights violations is seriously undermined.

Racism in the form of xenophobia, is also a major problem within the SAPS. It is no coincidence that the persons victimised in the Dog Unit incident were illegal immigrants. Partly because they are generally blamed for problems such as unemployment and crime, but also because of their marginal and vulnerable status, members of the SAPS of all races frequently target black legal and illegal immigrants, for harassment. The extent of this problem is such that South African citizens who appear to be foreign often experience harassment at the hands of the police.

Police members' propensity towards violence is of particular concern. According to Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) statistics, more than 2 500 people have died as a result of police action and in police custody in the period since the ICD started operating in April 1997. Of these deaths more than 70% are attributable to shootings by the police. While a majority of these deaths are lawful within the realms of police work, an unacceptable number are still as the result of unjustifiable actions by police members.

But statistics on deaths do not paint the full picture. For every person killed in police shootings a much greater number are injured. Furthermore there are also continuing problems of assaults on criminal suspects and other members of the public. During the 1999-2000 financial year police actions resulted in R40 million having to be paid out in civil claims. This is up from the R29 million paid out the previous year. A substantial number of these are as a result of excessive and violent actions by police members.

It is important to note that Dog Unit incident was preceded by an attempt to extort money from the three men. As stated by one of the victims, Gilbert Ntimane prior to the incident "The police … asked us for R300 but we didn't have it." This statement reflects a regular occurrence in which foreign immigrants are systematically targeted for extortion. In some places this is so common that immigrants refer it to as a "street tax".

Generally the problem of corruption appears to be endemic within the SAPS. Many ordinary members are using their low salaries as an excuse to commit acts of petty corruption. Demanding money to release a suspect or assist a complainant, and theft is commonplace. In some instances the collusion between criminal elements and members of the police service reaches into senior levels. Tackling the collusion between criminal syndicates and members of the SAPS has become key priority of the National Crime Combating Strategy.

Statistics released by the SAPS Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) reveal that between 1996 and 1999, complaints laid with the unit implicated 13 293 members in acts of corruption. This represents more than 10% of the SAPS. However, only 1 993 have been charged due to the limited capacity of the ACU. Earlier this year the SAPS released figures revealing that there are over 14 600 police who are facing criminal charges. However it is strongly arguable that these statistics do not reveal the full picture as it is widely acknowledged amongst researchers and criminologists that a majority of acts of police corruption and criminality go undetected.

Police reform is a difficult but not an impossible job. The kinds of internal problems confronting the SAPS face police services all over the world. The difference lies in the extent to which these problems occur between police services. Police leaders can tackle these issues if backed by political will and a clear programme of action for improving police integrity and professionalism that includes an opportunity for consultation and inputs from broader civil society. Such a programme should include:

  • An extensive diversity programme within the SAPS addressing attitudes of racism and xenophobia;
  • Addressing structural racial discrimination through the implementation of the SAPS equity plan;
  • A particular focus on the management of use of force within the SAPS;
  • Improved powers and resourcing for the Independent Complaints Directorate;
  • The development of more effective internal SAPS systems for the lodging and monitoring of complaints against police members;
  • Improvements in the functioning and effectiveness of the internal investigative and disciplinary systems within the SAPS; and
  • All managers must be given support and be held directly accountable for ensuring that the police members in their charge adhere to clear standards of integrity and professionalism.

Gareth Newham is a former Project Manager and David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 10 December 2000.

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