South Africa

Notes from the House: Leadership failures drag down police’s ability to reach NDP goals

Most members of the Police Portfolio Committee didn’t seem to think there was much sign of the professional, skilled and community-based police service envisaged in the National Development Programme. By MOIRA LEVY.

First published by Notes From The House

The South African Police Service (SAPS) was said to have implemented roughly 30% of the National Development Plan’s recommendations to turn it into a skilled and highly professional police service. That was the score given by the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service.

Asked by Police Committee chairperson Francois Beukman at a committee hearing this week to assess SAPS progress in developing the police service described in the National Development Plan (NDP), the SAPS themselves were more confident. They gave themselves a pass, claiming they were enforcing 51% of the NDP’s stipulations.

Civil society organisations Corruption Watch and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) didn’t even hazard a guess. They were more concerned to know why there was no sign yet of the NDP’s proposed National Policing Board or any of the other priorities listed in the NDP to modernise and transform the police services.

The hearing comes at a time that Parliament is marking the fifth anniversary of the launch of the NDP. Most members of the Portfolio Committee didn’t seem to think there was much sign of the professional, skilled and community-based police service envisaged in the NDP. If anything they expressed dismay at the SAPS’s evident lack of progress in making South Africa a safer place.

On the demilitarisation of the SAPS, one of the NDP’s priorities for a police service that protects the community against crime and violence, there was considerable confusion. The SAPS and some committee members said they were unsure about what exactly was meant by demilitarisation. It also begs the question, can it be applied in a country that clearly needs its public order policing and tactical response teams?

The SAPS announced that it was currently researching the matter, which prompted a piqued comment from the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service which, it turns out, is also doing the same research and had conducted a study in 2016/17 which concluded that “specialised units” can be paramilitary in nature “as they rely on rank structure for command and control, their members wear the same uniform [and] they have access to substantial weaponry”. In other words, the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service was left asking “if they are militarised or not, and if so, to what extent”.

This led to a clearly frustrated Petrus Groenewald from the FF+ blurting out that this discussion has been going on for years and “we are going round in circles”.

Even the ever-polite chairperson Beukman showed signs of impatience, especially during the presentation by the SAPS of its well over 100-page report, much of which the committee had heard before and had little to do with the application of the NDP.

Another ongoing discussion is around the NDP’s call for a multidisciplinary national policing board, which would help with recruiting and selecting police officers and monitoring ethics and standards of professionalism in the force.

Five years on, deliberations now centre on whether a stand-alone board or a board within the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service would be most desirable. The only agreement so far is that legislative amendments would be required in either case, which would be a protracted and complex process.

The committee heard that persistent failures in police leadership at the very highest levels were the ongoing cause of the systemic crises within the SAPS. Gareth Newham, Head of the ISS Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, pointed out that there are any number of highly skilled, professional career policewomen or men, committed to protecting communities against violence, who could be excellent candidates for the position of Police Commissioner.

Instead, in the last eight years there has been a turnover of five appointees in this post, “and we know what has become of most of them”. Astonishingly, the only requirements for the job at the very top of the SAPS is to be over 18, a South African citizen and not have a criminal record. The criteria needed to become a constable are more stringent than those required to be SAPS National Commissioner.

Newham put forward the view that leaving this critical appointment to be made by the President alone could lead to questionable decision-making. The same is true, he said, of the pending selection of a new head of the Hawks.

ISS and Corruption Watch are proposing that the next Commissioner of Police and Hawks head be appointed according to a merit-based and competitive process that is fully transparent with active citizen participation, much like the recent appointments of the heads of Chapter Nine institutions.

This echoes one of the proposals spelled out in the NDP: “The National Commissioner of Police and deputies should be appointed by the President on a competitive basis.” The NDP goes on to declare that the President should make his selection based on reports and recommendations made by a professional panel, which would “select and interview candidates for these posts against objective criteria” and submit nominations to the President. He would make his decision based on the proposals of the panel.

ISS and Corruption Watch have launched a public campaign for the appointment process of the next Police Commissioner, as well as the head of the Hawks, to be subjected to public scrutiny in this way.

Parliament would also play an oversight role, they said, quoting from Section 199(8) of the Constitution: “To give effect to the principles of transparency and accountability, multiparty parliamentary committees must have oversight of all security services in a manner determined by national legislation or the rules and orders of Parliament.”

In their submission to the committee, they were at pains to make it clear that this would not remove the President’s prerogative to make the final appointment on the national Police Commissioner. “Instead it will add an extra layer of transparency and accountability in this critical selection process. The same benefit would accrue to applying this process in appointing the head of the Hawks.

A transparent and public participatory appointment process would potentially ensure that the best possible candidates are appointed to lead these important crime and corruption fighting institutions,” their submission states. “An additional layer of checks and balances would serve in the best interests of the public and police service.”

Newham said that everywhere in the world the person heading the police force must be seen to be professional, knowledgeable, accountable and of the highest integrity because they set an example to those below them and determine that country’s institutional policing culture.

For too long the individuals appointed to the post of National Commissioner, and more recently the head of the Hawks, have tended to lack the necessary expertise, experience and integrity to effectively carry out the requirements of these crucial posts,” ISS and Corruption Watch said in a joint statement.

The National Development Plan has identified this shortcoming as causing a ‘serial crisis of top management in the police’ that is having a negative impact on the organisation. The consequences of poor management are increasingly becoming clearer.”

This comes amid evidence of a steady decline in visible policing in the form of roadblocks, cordons and searches, from 54,748 in 2011/12 to 31,691 in 2015/16. During this period, police detection rates dropped significantly as did the percentage of arrests and convictions by the Hawks.

At the same time the SAPS annual budget has seen a 50% increase since 2011 to an all-time high in the current financial year, “and it’s not going to get much bigger, there are not going to be more resources”, Newham told the committee. What is needed is effective and efficient policing, he said. DM

Photo: A woman looks through a police cordon set up to separate opposing protest marches outside Parliament on 08 August 2017. Protesters in support and also against the call for President Zuma to step down took to the streets of Cape Town ahead of the motion of no confidence voted on in Parliament. Photo: Nic Bothma/(EPA).