Members of the South African Police Service.

Members of the South African Police Service.

Sharon Seretlo, Gallo Images

Complaints brought against the South African Police Service highlight that there are deeper systematic failures within the safety sector, argues Reagen Allen. 

South African police are responsible for the deaths of civilians at a rate almost twice that of security officers in the US. Since 2017, rape by police officers has increased by 44% and torture by 24%.

Worse still, psychologists are of the view that democratic South Africa has inherited deep fears regarding police brutality in heavy-handedly enforcing apartheid legislation.

With the implementation of the nationwide lockdown, the introduction of curfews and issuing of permits to limit travel resembled the application of apartheid legalisation. Along with the inherited fears, the concern is that, not only did the heavy-handed enforcement of lockdown regulations by select safety and security officials become an unacceptable reminder of apartheid but it possibly speaks to much greater and ongoing problems within the safety sector.

The death of Collins Khosa sparked much necessary criticism of hard-handed law enforcement in South Africa. His case is one of six known cases recently investigated by the Independent Police Investigating Directorate (IPID) during the lockdown period.

Not only were these cases widely documented by the media but the case of Collins Khosa is one that acutely demonstrates the lack of transparency, accountability and consequent lack of confidence in the justice system. The Khosa case remains stuck between IPID, as the watchdog which recommended disciplinary action, and the SANDF which pardoned involved soldiers.

Assault and torture

During 2018, 5 829 complaints were brought against SAPS to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. 69.9% of these cases related to assault and torture.

Whilst 6.7% were recorded as deaths due to police action, which excludes deaths recorded in police custody. A more horrifying revelation is the mere 1.3% conviction rate for these crimes which effectively means, besides a disciplinary process, citizens remain subject to injustice.

These injustices may be attributed to deeper systemic failures with the safety sector.

The IPID Act requires the National Police Commissioner to respond to disciplinary recommendations, as well as inform the national Police Minister along with the Executive Director and Secretary of Police of these procedures.

These bodies within the police service are meant to address concerns and policy related issues regarding law enforcement. Their direct line of report, is, regrettably, right back to the Minister responsible for policing.

This is the same Minister responsible for the execution of safety policy in the first place, and in this way, the Minister gets to be both player and referee.

These lines of reporting do not align with the democratic principle of checks and balances. Checks and balances are governance principles to separate powers to achieve greater transparency and to promote accountability in the name of maximum functionality of public departments and services.

Transparency and accountability are fundamental to the practice of good governance; there is certainly a need for greater transparency and accountability in safety and security forces, highlighted by the grim reality of police brutality. 

The Police Ombudsman in its turn has the duty to enhance effective and efficient policing service delivery and to improve relations between communities and the police as a whole.

For the financial year ending on 31 March 2020, the office of the ombudsman too, received 70% more complaints than the previous financial year. 

Not only do these numbers create a greater cause for concern around poor service delivery, but it also draws attention to the lack of trust citizens hold in the safety sector. The office of the Ombudsman in the WC is also the first and only of its kind.

Under-resourcing of police

An investigation was launched by the Public Service Commission on under-resourcing in the South African Police Service in the Western Cape and revealed that there are indeed inadequacies with policing resources that went against policing needs and priorities.

The Police Minister, Bheki Cele, denied this saying under-resourcing exists only in relative terms. Denying that problems exist do not make them go away. Unfortunately, the principle of cooperative governance was ignored and came at the cost of citizens’ safety. Nonetheless, the Western Cape government launched its Safety Plan to supplement policing in the province for greater public safety.

The truth is that, the Western Cape Government Safety Plan is comprehensive in that it aims to address the root causes of crime and will be implemented by the use of real time data to target interventions, in communities where it is needed most.

But it cannot function without the confidence, trust and a capacitated national police service. Improper checks and balances, precipitous denialism, and the failure to address systemic failures may undermine this all-inclusive plan.

One should investigate the working conditions of safety officers that lead to poor service delivery and low morale that officers may have become subject to.

As seen, 26 years after apartheid, institutional reform is a long and often cumbersome process but we can never accept police brutality by officers who we ought to trust. What good is freedom and human rights in a constant stand-off with those who are meant to keep us safe?    

– Reagen Allen is the DA Western Cape spokesperson for Community Safety, MPL.

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