Police and Police Reform in South Africa After 1990:
- Elrena Van der Spuy
Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa
This is an extract from Presentation delivered at the India International Centre, New Delhi, 19 January 2005, sponsored by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in collaboration with India International Centre.
India and South Africa are two countries that not only share a comparative history, but there is also much to be said when it comes to confronting public police institutions in both the societies.
Both share some broad structural similarities
relating to factors such as: the historical
imprint of British colonial rule, the divisiveness of
communal politics and the
politics of resistance, as well as the entrenched nature of socio-economicinequality. Finally, there are also
the experiences of political transition relating to
the consolidation of constitutionalism and its implications for the structure and function of the police organisation.
South African Police in action
Broad structural similarities, however, should not
blind one to important differences. For example, the police in India comprise 1.4 million personnel to serve its 1.02 billion people. In contrast, South Africa has a police force of 140,000 for a population of only 45.5 million.
But one should not make too much of the differences in the size of the police and the scale of its operation. Public debate and scholarly research in both societies suggest that the search for police legitimacy, professionalism and efficiency is continual. Like elsewhere in the world, the specter of corruption, political manipulation and abuse of police power requires ongoing vigilance. In both societies, democratic policing as a social practice, as opposed to an abstract concept, is an ongoing process.
Given the lack of comparative analyses of policing in India and South Africa, and the potential fruits of such an analysis, however brief, I turn to a review of recent achievements in the terrain of South African police reform. Some of the formative influences that have shaped both the debate and practices of post-1990 police reform are:
of colonial and Apartheid rule:
Under Apartheid, various political, legal and social-cultural factors conspired to render police accountability even less of a reality than it had been in the earlier years of 20th century South Africa.
Much has been written about the excesses of the police under Apartheid. It was a system of minority racial rule in which an increasingly permissive legal regime (until the 1980s) facilitated the systemic abuse of police power and the subcontracting of terror to shadow formations in the name of anti-Communism.
The result was an incestuous relationship between political masters and the police high command. From 1976 onwards, the country was almost continuously the scene of hostile interactions between the police and the disenfranchised. As the struggle intensified, the police and their political masters became increasingly hostile to, and dismissive of, any criticisms of police conduct.
Under conditions of this low intensity civil war, the relationship between the disenfranchised people and the state’s security apparatus was marked by conflict and animosity. The institutional legacy of militarism, and the preoccupation with the maintenance of ‘public order’ and the defense of ‘state security’, helped to set the agenda for police reform in the early phase of political liberalisation. In this context the demand for the demilitarisation of the structure and function of the police institution, for example, needs to be appreciated.
of political transition:
A second formative
influence on the trajectory of police reform was the nature of
political transition. In political science literature the South
African case is often described as a classic ‘pacted’ agreement
between competing political elites. The negotiations were characterised
by compromise and confidence-building strategies, which for example,
included job protection for the old guard bureaucrats under the
Government of National Unity.
A second formative influence on the trajectory of police reform was the nature of political transition. In political science literature the South African case is often described as a classic ‘pacted’ agreement between competing political elites. The negotiations were characterised by compromise and confidence-building strategies, which for example, included job protection for the old guard bureaucrats under the Government of National Unity.
As a consequence the large-scale dismissal of security personnel so characteristic of other transitional experiments did not feature in local reform efforts. Through the signing of a Peace Agreement in 1991 a code of conduct was introduced. The latter placed particular emphasis on non-partisanship, the utilisation of minimum force and service delivery of the police institution to the wider public. stages.
The Peace Accord
made provision for various transitional mechanisms aimed at advancing
independent police oversight and a consultative collaboration
between police and civil society. Imperfect as these transitional
mechanisms were, they helped to clarify the rules underlying a
constitutional model of policing as hammered out around the negotiation
An analysis of the content of the Interim Constitution and the South African Police Services Act of 1993 point to the centrality of transparency, accountability and police-community partnerships for post-Apartheid police arrangements.
Two contentious issues regarding the police arrangement for the future related to the national versus the regional divide as well as the degree of political control to be exerted over the institution of policing in a constitutional democracy. Political expediency and compromises dictated the decisions on this front.
of the international community:
The South African
‘problem’ has long been internationalised. Since the 1960s the
excesses associated with white minority rule has been the subject
of considerable international exposure. Collaboration between
local and international human rights bodies has facilitated this
process. By 1990, internal isolation under Apartheid gave way
to forceful and constructive re-engagement with the international
Discussions on police reform reflected this insertion into a global community eager to promote the process of institutional engineering. A robust exchange regarding the future of policing emerged between a wide range of constituencies involving academics and researchers, politicians, policy elites, NGOs and police professionals themselves. The virtues of, inter alia, democratic policing, community policing, sector policing and zero tolerance strategies were considered and their applicability to local realities entertained.
Part and parcel of the process of internationalisation has been increased access to developmental assistance. Donor aid in support of criminal justice reform grew more widely after 1992. Donor agencies also targeted the police organisation as an important recipient of assistance. The exchange of ideas and the provision of resources and technical expertise were meant to facilitate institutional changes.
Such assistance has been characterised by diversity – both in terms of the types of projects funded and the diversity of donors involved. Recent South African experiments in this regard serve as a useful reminder of the opportunities for foreign assistance in support of police reform. The South-African case study also illustrates the constraints on foreign aid in the absence of conducive political conditions and local ownership of the reform agenda.
A fourth influence
on the project of police reform that has become more apparent
in recent years concerns the regionalisation of ‘security’ in
the Southern African region. Under current conditions where crime
itself takes on wider regional dimensions, policing priorities
are increasingly being set beyond the boundaries of any one state.
Security concerns are becoming regionalised and/or globlalised. In confronting the challenges posed by organised crime networks for example, law enforcement agencies need to think beyond the national level. Under conditions of globalisation, the imperatives of law enforcement are characterised by cross border co-operation, the harmonisation of legal regimes, the standardisation of police training and the emergence of policy convergence.
In the Southern African Development Community too, there is ample proof of the extent to which the destinies of law enforcement institutions have become intertwined. One small example of this process can be found in the formation of a regional police network, the South African Regional Police Chiefs Co-operation Organisation (SARPCCO). In the past few years SARPCCO has become responsible for setting regional policing priorities and facilitating cross-border collaboration around ‘priority crimes’.
of this is that agenda for police modernisation and reform is
in part at least being shaped by regional concerns. Likewise,
international concern with the threat posed by terrorism is bound
to have a formative influence on international cooperation between
security institutions in years to come.
The fifth influence
that has come to shape the debate and practice of public police
reform in South Africa concerns the privatisation of security.
Recent calculations show that there were twice as many registered
private security guards (248 000) in the year 2003 as compared
to the figure for 2002 (132 310)2. The ratio of public police
officials to registered private security guards for 2003 was almost
Whilst the trend
towards the commodification of policing services is of a global
nature, the consequences associated with such privatisation in
the context of new democracies may well be more insidious. Rampant
commodification of security means that security becomes a private
as opposed to a public good provided by the state to its citizenry.
contexts characterised by limited state capacity and resources
and entrenched patterns of inequality, access to security is likely
to become bifurcated along distinctly class lines.
have prompted various discussions on normative concerns relating
to equal access to justice as well as political discussions on
the role of the state vis-à-vis the delivery of basic security.
The trend towards privatisation has contributed to a broadening
of the debate on policing reform.
Again, South African
experiences suggest that the terms of reference for a discussion
on the future governance of security can no longer afford a parochial
focus on the South African Police Service. The institutional realignments
in the delivery of security necessitate demand new conceptual
tools and approaches. In the early days of discussion on South
Africas policing future a state-centered approach to police
reform was very much in evidence.
In recent years
a more pluralist approach to policing reform has emerged with
new sets of research questions being posed to take account of
the evolving inter-relationships between the market, the state
and the community as providers of security. Discussions on police
accountability, for example, now admit that the co-existence of
such multiple providers, necessitate a re-framing of the debate
on oversight way beyond the contours of the state.
and public concern with crime:
The sixth formative
influence on the project of policing reform (and a particularly
important one at that) has been the rise in crime, which has accompanied
South Africas political transition and public perceptions
of criminal disorder pervading the streets. This has led to continuous
shifts in crime policy and institutional priorities regarding
police reform. (Shaw, 2002).
By 1998 a forceful
engagement with crime trends shifted the emphasis in police reform
into more technical directions. The comparative record suggests
that the South African trajectory from broad human rights
concern with political oversight to a much more managerialist
emphasis on service delivery - is not unique. On the contrary,
in the early phase of political transition in post-authoritarian
contexts police reform tends to emphasise the political values
of accountability, rule of law, and human rights.
targeted for building mechanisms of oversight and inducing sweeping
changes in cultural habits amongst police personnel with insufficient
attention given to building police capacity to deal with increases
in violent crime.
But under political
pressure to do something about crime, the police may well resort
to repressive tactics, which has much more in common with the
paramilitary policing model than with a new constitutional order.
At this juncture,
the theory of democratic policing has less and less influence
on the actual practice of policing. An enquiry into policy shifts
over the past fifteen years - particularly from the National Crime
Prevention Policy of 1996 to the National Crime Combating Policy
of 2000 - would suggest that South African developments illustrate
the extent to which the agenda for police reform remains vulnerable
to situational exigencies.
is a project subject to realpolitik often underestimated in more
abstract discussions. In conclusion, the debate on the police
in South Africa has changed radically in the past decade and a
half. The exposés of police abuses and the deep corruption
of police power in apartheid society produced in the 1980s gave
way to constructive engagements with the policy frameworks and
institutional mechanisms for democratic policing in the 1990s.
In the current
decade, there is a widespread desire for effective and humane
policing. But there is an equally common awareness of the obstacles
in the way of achieving it. Most South Africans would agree that
the police should act with professionalism and according to the
ideals of due constitutional process. But few view this goal as
attainable under current social conditions. In this sense, the
debate is no longer about what, but about how.
with the how is a necessary pre-condition for a policing future
that will consolidate the advances that have been made thus far.
In pursuit of such engagements exchanges within the larger Commonwealth
community, and societies such as the Indian one, seem eminently
desirable. In this regard the efforts of the Commonwealth Human
Rights Initiative deserve particular mention.