Expanding the police force is a tricky business

‘Maximum force’ is no longer a policy publicly endorsed by Minister Nathi Mthethwa. (Delwyn Verasamy)

‘Maximum force’ is no longer a policy publicly endorsed by Minister Nathi Mthethwa. (Delwyn Verasamy)

One did not have to read the ANC's 2009 election manifesto too closely to realise what had become the central strand in its thinking on how to address crime.

Among a list of vague promises the 2009 manifesto committed the ANC to "being tougher on criminals and organised syndicates". It also recommended providing "greater support for the South African Police Service, especially to combat the attacks on the members of the SAPS through introducing legislative measures, to protect law-enforcement officials in the execution of their duties".

As reflected in this language, ANC leaders at that time believed that crime could be addressed with more aggressive use of force by police. This approach had already been articulated by the then deputy minister of safety, Susan Shabangu, an important ally of Jacob Zuma, in her April 2008 "kill the bastards" speech. At the time this represented a major break from official policy.

But though Thabo Mbeki was still president, Zuma was clearly in the ascendancy. After Zuma became president in May 2009, this type of rhetoric escalated into a cacophony. Police were called on not to hesitate, think twice or use warning shots and to show no mercy in the "war against crime". The most prominent exponents of this approach were minister of police Nathi Mthethwa and the then national commissioner Bheki Cele. Zuma also made a number of pronouncements clearly indicating that they had his backing.

As the toll of innocent victims escalated, the ANC government realised that it had precipitated a crisis in policing. An announcement by Zuma in November 2009 that "the law does not give the police a licence to kill" signalled that wild rhetoric of this kind was no longer approved of.

Mthethwa, Cele and Zuma, though, continued to believe that the main problem was that policing was not robust enough. In 2010 this understanding was put into effect through the militarisation of police ranks. Mthethwa remained steadfast in his belief that, even if some of the rhetorical flourishes were to be dispensed with, more aggressive use of force was still the preferred way forward.

Over roughly a year, starting in July 2011, Mthethwa repeatedly encouraged police to use "maximum force". In the two weeks before the policing disaster at Marikana on August 16 2012, he twice called for this from public platforms. These were the last times that Mthethwa publicly endorsed the aggressive use of force by police.

In the 2014 ANC election manifesto there are no longer calls for tougher policing or anything indicating that the ANC believes that more aggressive use of force will resolve the crime problem.

This is the only indication that we are now living in the post-Marikana period. Unlike in the manifestos of both the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, there is no mention of the need for better public order policing. There is also no mention of the need to address police brutality, an issue highlighted by the DA.

Whereas the ANC is silent about the legacy of Marikana, the DA has clearly not been paying attention to recent developments regarding SAPS recruitment. Their manifesto promises to expand the SAPS by the addition of 93 000 police officers to bring the total number to 250 000. In the years 2002 to 2012 government already dramatically increased the personnel strength of the SAPS from 120 549 to 199 345, an increase of 65%. Currently this number includes 157 000 police officers, the balance being administrative personnel.

Expanding the SAPS over 10 years by close to 80 000 members required that the SAPS in fact induct 12 000 recruits each year, as the SAPS loses about 4 000 people on an annual basis. Recruitment on this scale clearly stretched SAPS recruitment, training and management systems beyond what they were reasonably capable of. In 2010 Cele, at that point still national commissioner, complained that the mass recruitment process had sacrificed quality for quantity.

Out of touch
The commitment that the DA makes to a further 60% increase in the number of police officers would therefore be likely to prove incompatible with its commitment to ensure that new members "are properly qualified and trained". It also suggests that it is out of touch with recent budgetary developments.

Though promises had previously been made to exceed the 200 000 level, the 2013 budget reflected the treasury's recognition that further increases in SAPS personnel were not affordable. The medium-term expenditure framework now pegs total SAPS personnel at 198 000 until 2016/17. Because increasing police numbers also implies the need for additional administrative personnel, the promise of 93 000 extra police officers implies that the SAPS overall personnel establishment would increase to over 300 000.

Personnel costs make up 75% of the SAPS budget, but expanding personnel also implies the need for additional office space, uniforms, vehicles and equipment. The police budget is already expected to increase from the current R72-billion to R81-billion by 2016/17. By the time all of the 93 000 additional police officers are recruited this will be costing the government whatever is then the equivalent of R30-billion each year.

Like the DA, the EFF promises to expand the SAPS, though on a more modest scale. The EFF manifesto undertakes to provide "permanent jobs", implicitly within the SAPS, to all police reservists. With the number of active reservists currently standing at less than 20 000 the fiscal implications of this are far less dramatic than those implied in the DA's manifesto. The demand for permanent positions is also not one that is shared by all reservists. More affluent reservists, even if they enjoy police work, tend to be disdainful of police salaries.

Yet over recent years the SAPS has already sifted through the reservist body, offering permanent posts to those who have the minimum qualifications. The remaining reservists who are interested in permanent SAPS posts are generally not suitably qualified.

Implementation of the EFF policy would therefore be to the detriment of the quality of policing. If implemented other than on a once-off basis it would also defeat the purpose of having reservists. Anyone subsequently admitted to the reserve could immediately demand a permanent position in the SAPS.

David Bruce is an independent researcher on crime and policing



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