The Limits of Police Reform

The Limits of Police Reform

Rauch, J. (1991). The Limits of Police Reform. In Indicator SA, Vol. 8, No. 4, Spring.


In Indicator SA, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 17-20, Spring 1991.

Janine Rauch is an independent consultant.

This paper is based on a research project funded by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA).

Dramatic developments in South African politics since mid-1991 have put the spotlight on the critical role of the security forces in a transitional period of reform. Recent issues include media revelations of collusion between the security establishment and the lnkatha Freedom Party, biased policing of the violence and the reshuffle of the key Law & Order and Defence portfolios. To complement Clifford Shearing's review of the draft Peace Accord unveiled in August 1991, Janine Rauch evaluates recent institutional reforms within the South African Police.

Recent disclosures about the involvement of the South African Police (SAP) in covert funding to Inkatha have focused public attention on the political role of the SAP and the urgent need for police reform. The veil of secrecy in which police operations have traditionally been shrouded is beginning to lift, but access to information about the SAP is still regarded as a privilege, rather than as a public right. Little is known about the structures of the SAP or the homeland police forces.

In 1988, the ex-Commissioner of Police, General De Witt, was appointed by the SAP to conduct an investigation into the restructuring of the force. The current regional structures of the SAP, which are a result of the recommendations of the De Witt Commission, and more recent changes to Head Office and Branch functions, are probably the most significant changes to have taken place within the SAP since its formation in 1913.

The major recommendations of the De Witt Commission centred around a decentralisation programme for the force. Further restructuring was motivated by the changes to the political environment which followed State President de Klerk's landmark speech on 2 February 1990. These changes (SAP Strategic Plan), which took effect in August 1991 are aimed at improving police-community relations by improving the SAP's image, service and organisational efficiency. However, the tradition of rigid hierarchies and militaristic style within the police force continues to delay real improvements in service delivery.

Below the Commissioner of Police, the General Staff is the highest decision-making body in the SAP. It currently consists of over 50 members with the ranks of General, Lieutenant-General or Major-General. These Generals are the heads of all the departments of the force, the Regional Commissioners and the 'Super-Generals' who head each of the four new arms of the SAP.

Line Functions

During the first half of 1991, extensive changes to the old SAP Branch structures were announced. Despite these structural changes being slow to alter the practice of policing, they are an indication, at one level, of the SAPs eagerness to depoliticise its operations and distance itself from National Party control. The operations of the force have been divided into four new arms.

Invisible Policing?

On 1 April 1991, the Detective Branch was officially merged with the Security Branch (SB) to form the Crime Combating and Investigation Division. In the context of the unbanning of the liberation movements and extra-parliamentary opposition groups (which had been the main target of SB activity), this merger was motivated as part of de Klerk's stated intention to take the SAP out of the sphere of political activity.

However, in practice the creation of the new division did not substantially alter the existence, structure or operation of the old Branches. Despite official statements that members of the SB are now engaged in conventional crime-detection work, there is evidence to suggest that the SB is still functioning, in the post-de Klerk period, to police political organisations.

A variety of questions raised by the Inkatha-gate scandal about SB operations remain unanswered. Some of these have important implications for the policing of the political activity during the transition period. Officially, the brief of the SB was to monitor 'illegal' political activity. With all political parties now unbanned, and snowballing evidence of Security Police involvement in covert political operations, the role of 'the Branch' requires radical re-assessment.

New names and structures (the old SB is now known as the 'Crime Information Service') have not yet taken effect at local level, due, in part to poor internal communications processes and to resistance from the lower echelons of the SB. Public confidence in the SAP has always been influenced by perceptions about the SB, and nothing less than complete openness to scrutiny will convince the public that the role of the Security Police is really changing.

Visible Policing

The Visible Policing Division came into operation in August 1991 as a result of the merger of the Operational and Uniformed Branches. The work of this division will centre on crime prevention and will consist of a proactive and a reactive policing service.

The old Uniform Branch will be responsible for proactive policing, including crime prevention. The reactive service, the old Operational Branch, will react to public order policing needs such as riot control. Despite official commitment to proactive policing, police stations in townships around South Africa continue to operate as fortresses, barricaded against the very community they are supposed to serve.

After basic training, police constables are generally posted to the Uniform Branch. However, their training for community-style policing and crime prevention is practically non-existent. Despite the fact that the police station is, in the current context, the most crucial point of police service delivery, the tendency has been for the most promising local cops to be removed from this area of work and trained for a commissioned position in one of the other branches or in the management hierarchy.

The Uniform Branch also included the Reserve Police Force (civilian volunteers) and the Police Reserve (ex-members of the SAP) which formed a crucial part of defence capabilities under the state's former 'Total Strategy' framework. Both the Reserve Forces have been used in township duty in recent years, particularly during the elections in September 1989. Tighter control and role-definition of these units has not been addressed in the SAP's new structure.

The Operational Branch was created in 1989 to take responsibility for active political police work such as riot control and counter-insurgency operations. Its official function was 'to deal with all tasks in respect of security in the RSA'.

Following the report of the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into police behaviour in 1990, the SAP commissioned an internal inquiry into its crowd and riot control techniques. This consisted of members of the SAP, SA Defence Force, National Intelligence Service (NIS) and Department of Constitutional Affairs.

The recommendations of this Commission flow from its conclusion that 'in cases where the actions of the Police fell short of the mark, this could not be ascribed to defective training but to a lack of proper supervision and control, and to a deficiency in the number of trained personnel available' (Annual Report of SAP Commissioner. 1990).

The result is that, rather than being scaled down in the post-Emergency period, the Riot Unit has been strengthened and diversified, with a large proportion of its members now based in 'Unit 19' at Pretoria. This is a newly formed rapid-response Riot Unit with a large membership that can be deployed anywhere in the country.

Black Bobbies

The Operational Branch also previously included the Special Constables (now known as Police Assistants) and the black Municipal Police. Introduced in 1986 with the recruitment of 3,000 black constables. The 'kitskonstabels' (instant cops) were to be a black force for deployment in unrest-ridden townships. This strategy, born at the height of the State of Emergency, has appropriately been dubbed 'black-on-black policing' (UCT Institute of Criminology: 'Kitskonstabels in Crisis', 1990).

The absence of formal educational qualifications for entrance to the Special Constables and the limited training provoked much criticism. Together with the reputation this unit quickly acquired for lawless behaviour in the townships, these factors prompted the SAP to reform by improving the training and raising the entrance requirements.

The Special Constables account for approximately 10% of the actual membership of the SAP, and plans for their integration into the new structure are not yet clear. Although other race groups are now recruited into these units, the diversion of black recruits into the Special Constables is evidenced by the fact that 3,400 black special constables were trained in 1990, as compared with just over 1,000 black student constables for the SAP itself (SAP. Op Cit, 1990).

The Municipal Police were introduced during the 1986 State of Emergency, ostensibly as 'bobbies on the beat' for black townships, but in fact deployed in protection and support of the Black Local Authorities (BLAs). At the time of the launch, the Municipal Police were employed by the BLAs and were not part of the SAP.

In 1989, the Municipal Police were incorporated into the SAP, partly in response to their reputation for abuses of power and resistance to police authority, and partly to bolster membership figures for the SAP, to help reduce a severe manpower shortage. There are approximately 10,000 Municipal Police, who make up over 12% of the police force, and one-fifth of the black membership of the SAP.


While there is no doubt that the work of the Uniform Branch in police stations and that of the Operational Branch in riot control are both highly 'visible' forms of policing, the new division is made up of two branches which, in policing terms, are strange bedfellows. The Operational Branch represents the opposite extreme of militaristic 'fire-brigade policing' from the locally-based patrol work of the Uniform Branch.

Far from being demobilised, the Riot Units are being strengthened, both in terms of manpower and technology, and will continue to play a vital role in the SAP's management of the transition period. With the further burden of co-ordination of Emergency Services and Special Units falling to the Operational Branch, it seems unlikely that the vital transition to a coherent style of 'community policing' will develop in this division in the near future.

Staff Functions

The new Human Resources Management division will take responsibility for all training and personnel functions, including personnel administration, recruitment, social welfare and training. Training in the SAP currently consists of mandatory Basic and in-Service Training; and optional academic training in Police Science. The basic training, currently under review within the SAP, will continue to be racially segregated until the end of 1991.

Not only is the basic training woefully inadequate in terms of preparing trainees for the real tasks which face them in police stations across the country, but the style of management and teaching in the Police Colleges is archaic. Of the total number of SAP basic trainees in 1990, 71% were white, and 14% were women (SAP, Op Cit. 1990). The Special Constables and Municipal Police are trained at separate institutions, for shorter periods, with different course material. Training for homeland police forces also consumes a sizeable proportion (40%) of the SAP's resources for basic training of black staff.

Lastly, the new Supporting Services division incorporates the remaining management, logistical and administrative functions. It is responsible for administering many of the changes implemented as a result of the De Witt Commission, such as the decentralisation of certain administrative and financial functions, and the goals of the new Strategic Plan in relation to cost-effective management.

Many administrative functions are now reproduced at regional level, such as public relations, recruiting, logistics, research, and legal services. Although removed from 'active policework', many of the units in this division play key roles in police-public interactions, for example, the Public Relations department and the Legal Services teams.


The chaos and disorganisation which are evident in the SAP at the moment are substantially the products of the restructuring of the force which has been ongoing since 1989: and, secondly, the changes to the national political reality which have required the police force to fundamentally redefine its role.

In some senses, changes to the administrative functions have caused more severe disruption within the force than changes to the line functions. The upsurge in political conflict and violence has put further pressure on an already overstretched force: and it is clear that the SAP are not able (and possibly, at some points, not willing) to deal with the current situation to the satisfaction of all parties. This inability to deal with the violence is not the product of an inadequately staffed or under-resourced force.

As the State's 'first line of defence' (see Indicator SA Vo16/No4:53/57, 1989), the SAP has always had ample access to resources: and the 1991 Budget shows a major shift in funds from the SADF to the SAP. Rather, the inability and possible unwillingness of the police to deal with the violence is a consequence of their historical alienation from black communities, the narrow ideological framework within which they have trained and a history of ineffective management practices.

The new Strategic Plan and restructuring of the SAP need to be understood both as responses to the profound crisis of legitimacy which the force continues to experience, and as evidence of a real commitment, in some ranks at least, to a process of depoliticisation and change.

The broad strategies of the SAP in the post-1990 period are limited in their potential to address the vital problems of internal communication and accountability. Already it is obvious that official changes in policy and practice have not filtered down to the lowest ranks. Even at the simple structural level, this does not bode well for a future government which might wish to establish a different policing practice. The occupational subculture of the police is, in most countries, resistant to change; and in South Africa, the particular 'Christian National' features of this subculture have a greater potential to limit the effectiveness of police reform.

However, the recent decentralisation of active policing and managerial functions do have the potential to make the police more accessible and accountable to local communities. Also, the division between line functions (Crime Combating and Visible Policing) and staff functions (Human Resources Management and Supporting Services) should work to the advantage of active policing units, and the consumer, by removing some of the administrative burdens from the line functionaries. The outcome of the merger between the political (Security Branch and Operational Branch) and the non-political (Detective and Uniform Branch) police functions remains unclear.

The national political climate, the progress of negotiations, and the extent of political reform will ultimately determine the extent to which more normal policing will be possible in South Africa. Effective reform of the police force needs to include a bottom-up approach and the opening up of the police force to real community participation at a variety of levels.

The draft peace accord recommends that a number of new structures be set up to address precisely these problems. However, its recommendations – including the formation of local dispute resolution structures, special units to investigate complaints against the police, and a Police Board to advise the Minister – are still subject to negotiation and implementation by the SAP.

To some extent, the new SAP structure has anticipated these developments, and the various structures of the national peace committee will not have a significant impact on the shape of the police organisation. What is important is the extent to which the peace process will shape new police practices. If the principle of police accountability is compromised by party-political trade-offs, or by half-hearted implementation in the SAP, the chances of building effective police-community relations in the future will be minimal.

The public will not be convinced of police reform by new names and expensive media campaigns. If the SAP is to survive these turbulent times and effect the changes to which it is now committed, the public will have to experience a real improvement in the quality of service they receive from all units of the SAP. Perceptions on both sides of police-community relations need to change. The only guarantee of effective police reform is a real commitment by the community to become involved in policing.


© 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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