SAPS wants ex-cops back in blue

The equation is a simple one: the South African Police Service (SAPS) has too many empty uniforms and, at the same time, many former cops are unemployed. So in the coming weeks, the SAPS will start a process of inviting former members to re-enlist in what national police commissioner Riah Phiyega last week described as a search for “the best of the best, former employees who have a lot to offer in terms of past experience, skills, integrity and commitment”.

But she may be disappointed.

The problems the police face go much deeper than mere numbers, the type of former police officers Phiyega is courting told the Mail & Guardian this week – and in some cases those problems were created by the kind of focus on numbers behind the re-enlistment initiative. And although they do not believe it a bad thing to invite the old hands back, they’re not sure the “best of the best” will be available.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t try it, or there will not be an enormous response,” said George Fivaz, the first post-1994 police commissioner who now runs an eponymous investigative agency. “But they will have to be careful about who responds and that you get people with their heart and soul in it, and not people coming back for a salary because they do not have a salary at the moment.”

Professional consequences
Fivaz is one of few former police officers willing to be quoted by name about anything to do with his former place of employment; many have careers dependent on the co-operation of the police and fear the professional consequences of sharing their opinions. But every private investigator and corporate security manager has many anecdotes to share of good cops who are unemployed – because those in jobs get regular calls from their unemployed brethren.

“It’s always the same thing with all the guys we get who come and apply here, the ones who come and beg for a job – the CV is the same,” said a Johannesburg private investigator with decades of police experience. The good police officers stuck in lower or middle ranks grow disillusioned with their lack of career mobility and frustrated at their inability to do their jobs because of bureaucracy or a lack of resources or the incompetence of superiors. They leave for jobs in the private sector, but find those jobs to be hardly better.

Police commissioner Riah Phiyega. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

“There were a lot of them working for the mines, but the mines don’t have as many people anymore,” the private investigator said. “Now they look after boats in Mozambique or work in Iraq or sit at home while the wife works.”

Will those people jump at the opportunity to return to the police? Hell yes, their former commanders and colleagues agree. Will they still be disillusioned by the police service they find themselves returning to? Absolutely. The only difference is that they may stick it out this time, drawing a salary for being in uniform while not achieving much, knowing the alternative is worse.

And putting people in uniform to get them on the street is where a lot of the recent trouble at the SAPS started in the first place.

World Cup
“For the 2010 soccer World Cup you had all these constables who were pushed through to do crowd control,” said Ockie Brits, who investigated murder and robbery for 26 years and now heads a community policing forum in Mpumalanga. “There was a crash course to just get it done. Are some of them good police today? Definitely. But look at the civil claims the police has had to pay out since they started. Many of them [are] costing a lot of money because they didn’t get the training and don’t care how they do the job.”

In the best of all possible worlds those who re-enlist will do so because they have policing in their blood, and will bring with them experience that is sorely lacking on the street and behind police station counters.

“Fact is the exodus not only left a huge gap in the ability and efficiency of management to manage the service, but it also created a lack of capacity and experience to execute the day-to-day functions and responsibility of a police service,” said Fivaz.

But at best that will be a short-term solution to a single short-term problem that ignores glaring questions.

“You shouldn’t forget what you already have on the ground,” said Fivaz.

“There are around 200 000 people out there, this gigantic police service, and you have to ask: Why are they not performing?”

Part of the answer lies with police officers who push paper without investigating, or mishandle evidence, or lack vehicles to get around. A far greater part of the blame, however, lies with the managers and superiors of those police officers, say the old-timers; they have yet to see anyone offer up a plan to deal with that.

Return to the fold (with provisos)

In advertisements to be published soon, the SAPS will invite some former members to apply for jobs, as a once-off measure to bolster numbers.

But the door is not being thrown wide open. Those who wish to apply can be no older than 50 and must have left the SAPS no earlier than 2005. They must have left in good standing, with neither disciplinary charges nor criminal investigation pending against them, and “only those former members who have good attendance and disciplinary records need apply”.

Those of all ranks are welcome back, but they will be re-appointed at a rank no higher than that of lieutenant, and they will have to dig into their own pockets to go wherever they are needed.

“The applicant must be willing to be deployed based on the needs of the SAPS, which may include relocating at own expense and/or accepting a post away from his or her current place of residence,” the SAPS said last week.

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Phillip De Wet
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