/ 4 June 2024

A new minister must lead reform of the police 

3a345fab Police Delwynverasamy Scaled
A lack of effective political leadership has contributed to the stagnation and decline of the South African Police Service (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

At some point within the next few weeks the newly elected South African president must appoint a minister of police, the eighth to be appointed in democratic South Africa. 

The wheeling and dealing accompanying the establishment of a national coalition government may influence this appointment. But it is critical that the merits of the appointment, and not just political deal making, should play an important role in which minister is selected. 

Without a more effective police service, South Africa’s democracy may continue to lose legitimacy with the majority of people. Afrobarometer surveys indicate that many members of the public have lost faith in democracy’s ability to provide effective government. Crime is ranked only second to unemployment as the biggest issue that the government must address.

Most of our past police ministers have not distinguished themselves, particularly if our key measure for assessment is whether they have left us with a stronger police service. 

The ministers who served from 2002 to 2012, might wish to claim credit for the dramatic expansion of the South African Police Service (SAPS) that happened under their watch. During this period the number of SAPS personnel expanded dramatically, from 120 549 in 2002 to 199 345 in 2012. But merely employing more police has limited value. A bigger police service is not necessarily a more effective one. 

Another basic error made by some incumbents has been to equate better policing with greater levels of force. The term of office of Steve Tshwete, who died in April 2002 while serving as minister, is remembered mostly for his statement that “We are going to deal with criminals in the same way that a bulldog deals with a bull.”

Nathi Mthethwa, who took office after the resignation of Thabo Mbeki. and many of his cabinet, in 2008, also promoted the idea that police should deal with alleged criminals by means of “maximum force”. 

His term as minister culminated disastrously during a strike at the Lonmin mine at Marikana on 16 August 2012. After a week marred by violence, which included the killing of two police officers and eight others, the SAPS shot dead 34 men and injured countless others, in an incident that remains mired in controversy. For Mthethwa the consequence was transfer, two years later, to the position of minister of arts and culture.    

Some police ministers have distinguished themselves mostly by absence from the role. Tshwete’s successor, Charles Nqakula, was seemingly appointed largely as a placeholder. Then president Mbeki may have believed that the appointment in 2000 of a senior and, at the time, widely respected ANC cadre, Jackie Selebi, as national police commissioner rendered the role of police minister largely redundant.  Mbeki appears to have anticipated that Nqakula, one of his closer allies, would be able to attend to other pressing domestic and foreign political work, while nominally occupying the office, still called minister of safety and security at that time. 

It is sometimes said that our current minister, Bheki Cele, was mainly appointed by Ramaphosa in 2018 because of his status and influence in the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. But when he was appointed as minister he was possibly the ANC MP most suited to the job, having occupied important police governance and leadership positions. 

From 2004 to 2009 he served as a member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive in a portfolio that included police oversight and community safety. In July 2009 he was appointed as the national commissioner to replace Selebi who had been charged with corruption the previous year (Tim Williams served as acting national police commissioner in the intervening period). In 2011 Cele was removed from the national commissioner post based on the findings of a board of inquiry finding against him, though this was subsequently overturned. 

During his term as MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, Cele allegedly also promoted “shoot to kill” policing. This has fortunately not been a characteristic of his term of office as minister. However, one responsibility he seems to have taken seriously is that of attending the funerals of police members who have been killed in the line of duty. Though it has sometimes been perceived as encouraging greater use of force by police, the point that he has repeatedly stressed is that police are by law entitled to defend themselves, using lethal force if necessary. His somewhat rhetorical statements that they “should not die with their guns in their hands” seems intended to convey to them that, where they are able to defend themselves, they should where possible do so.  Insofar as his aim has been to protect the lives of the men and women in blue, his legacy is to be respected. 

A more questionable aspect of Cele’s term in office pertains to his frequent incursions into operational decision making. Having served previously as national commissioner, Cele seems to have found it difficult to resist taking on responsibilities, such as the appointment of task teams, that should be those of the national commissioner. While, during his term as national commissioner, he did indeed wear the SAPS uniform, he remains a politician. His two years as a policeman did not provide him with much in the way of operational experience.

Whether he was equipped to perform this role, it is fair to say that he has not delivered on what, in terms of the Constitution, is his most important responsibility. Section 206(1) and 206(2) of the Constitution state that a principal responsibility of the police minister is to formulate national policing policy.

Policy has become something of a dirty word in South Africa. What has become glaringly apparent is that many policies are largely irrelevant as they are not underpinned by a state machinery capable of supporting their implementation. 

National policing policy that provides yet another formulation of what an ideal police service might look like is clearly not required. But there is a critical need for strategic policy leadership from the government that sets out a clear framework for moving the police forward from its current state of stagnation and decline.  

The police service is on the rocks. It is a 20th century policing colossus in the stormy seas of the 21st century, an analogue police service in an artificial intelligence era.  Notwithstanding the substantial impact of the police reform process of the mid-1990s, it is still in many ways, like Eskom, an institution that is embedded in an altogether different era.  

A process of reform and strengthening of the SAPS is clearly necessary. This must be guided by a considered but bold vision that aims to ensure that the police service far more effectively supports South Africa’s efforts to address chronic violence and a multitude of other forms of elite and citizen criminality.  

Notwithstanding the horse-trading that is integral to coalition formation it is critically important that a police minister is appointed who is suited to guide this process.

David Bruce is an independent researcher on policing.