David Africa
David Africa

General Cele and our new (read old) army of police officers

Our national commissioner of police has now announced that he will soon become a general as the police force reverts to its apartheid-era military ranking system. Our soon-to-be general tells us that this reversion to a past age is necessary because the demilitarisation of policing ranks in 1995 impacted negatively on discipline in the police.

His deputy, Magda Stander, further informs us that ranks like “inspector” are confusing because “inspectors belong on busses”. Is our deputy commissioner (soon to be a fear-inspiring lieutenant-general I suppose) aware that the most professional police services internationally have demilitarised ranks? The famous Scotland Yard is filled with inspectors … and no they are not bus conductors.

Do our generals-to-be really think that a change of rank titles will bring about a serious change of discipline and attitude in the police? Their attitude is based on a whole set of false premises about policing in apartheid-era South Africa, military structures and discipline. In the first instance they are mistaken in thinking that the “effectiveness” of the apartheid-era police had anything to do with the nature of its ranking structure. Its dubious success was premised on the use of widespread violence and terror against the population, inhumane methods of extracting confessions that were then paraded as investigative work and a complete disrespect for the most fundamental rights of citizens.

Towards the end of the apartheid regime even this militarised and brutal structure could no longer maintain control over large segments of the police, let alone the population. Do our generals really believe that a police force consisting of a largely uneducated or poorly educated workforce can conduct itself in the professional manner required of a modern police agency? Changing ranks does not make an effective police officer. What it will do is compound an impression of power among many of our police officers, and a willingness to exercise such power. We can imagine who the victims of this militarisation will be: the public especially in the townships and suburbs with high levels of crime.

The allure of militarisation has just recently been shown up by the large-scale indiscipline in our own defence force. The military ranking system did not prevent thousands of soldiers from protesting, illegally striking and threatening more severe future action. Our police generals would do well to take note of this lesson and rather focus on developing the skills base, educational levels and community rootedness of our police officers. The reversion to the apartheid-era ranking system (because that is exactly what it is … return to force, militarism and an autocratic mentality) seems to fit neatly with the Zuma government’s so-called “tough on crime” approach, an approach that is devoid of intelligent thinking and plays to the public demand for “being tough”. It is reflective of an absence of any real thinking on how to deal with the crime that our society confronts.

The creation of a “phantom army” of goose-stepping police officers will not make crime go away and make our streets safer places. Far from being a panacea (or even a mildly contributing factor) the militarisation of our anti-crime strategy will only further alienate the police from communities and lead to an increase in police-related violence (as our new soldier-police officers will have to be taught to behave like soldiers too).

In some senses it is good to see the Zuma government being true to its label as a “government of action” but to decide on a course of action so out of step with the norms of the society we are trying to build and replace it with an outdated and discredited model of policing reeks of “one step forward, two steps backward”.

  • Mlungisi

    Well said.

    We have truly come full circle! The ‘service’ is being replaced by ‘force’ (and forcefully too!), and the generals are back. And so is the “Police Files” programme of old. What is happening? Is there a new unannounced Crime Prevention Strategy? Talk about a creeping dictatorship which does not announce its coming with ‘drum majorettes’! All of this, including the “shoot to kill” presidential instruction, proceeds from the very mistaken notion that ‘criminals have more rights than their victims’. But surely the militarization of our police is certain to reduce all our rights.

  • Liz

    Through a haze of antibiotics and Med Lemon I had me a few moments of unsubstantiated freaking out. My first reaction to hearing their plan was simple: terror.

    I saw our beautiful country in lockdown with tanks patrolling the streets. Ridiculous, I know. That much power in some arm of the government, whether it’s the old and decidedly evil regime or the current one. *shudder*

    I find the soon-to-be-Generals’ reasons reeking of shortsighted stupidity. It also feels like maybe they might have a longterm plan we aren’t aware of just yet.


  • Blip

    Humbug, David. Humbug. Standards in the police as well as the army have plummeted from functional-if-harsh into completely chaotic dysfunctionality since “transformation” kicked in, and you know it. Continuing along that same grim trajectory, or intensifying the touchy-feely gentling is not an option. They need hardening up. Reverting to the old apartheid-era military ranks may be only a symbolic move, but at least it is a move in the right direction.

  • Dawn

    Its always easier to change names than to do the real thing. Our police, despite many of them trying hard, ARE inept. They are often semi-literate, and certainly poorly trained. But, hey, why not have a commission to design new uniforms to match the new titles! -)

  • Grant W

    About a million great points. When will all the pomp and ceremony and the blustering self-importance actually give way to intelligent leadership that can achieve results without the circus show?

  • Joe Moer

    When the Police introduced the new ranks I had a reason to go to the local police station to certify some documents, behind the counter was a policeman who I knew,he was wearing a sergeant’s stripes, in chatting to him I asked how tough was the exam, he then informed me that there are no exams, people just get promoted !!!!!!.In the UK a sergeants course and the exam can take years, but here any fool can ( and do) get promoted

  • hubert

    I agree, this decision has been based on a wrong assumption that the demilitarisation was impacting negatively. There are more obvious reasons, mentioning any of them unfortunatly does not bring us any closer to the solution of the problem, since it is rooted too deeply in society now.

  • MLH

    What’s in a name?

    I’m afraid that it will take far more to improve all government departments.

    What would benefit the country most, is public servants who each felt a vocation rather than merely entertained the ambition to earn a salary. At the moment, the functioning of departments is more like a civil war behind closed doors, with good and bad employees sabotaging each other’s efforts.

    I do think, though, that when the rule of law has broken down, which it certainly has here, that Old Testament justice is required to get us back to a position where New Testament justice and constitutional rights for all (even the bad guys) can deliver.

  • Hugh

    Orwell used to call this practice “Newspeak” – chnage the words and people think diiferently.
    Will they change the “community service centre” back to the Charge Office?

  • Leo

    I am reading Thought Leader out of pure curiosity since your country is following step-in-step the history of Russia conversion into USSR. There are sucha striking similarities that I can not stop reading (from time to time) your blogs.
    SouthAfrican guys and girls, most of yours sound in writing like relatively educated people. But have you studied the world history? Do you really believe that your country future will be different from all previous “revolutionaries”? Just look at Zimbabwe …

  • Benzol

    I thought that this militarisation of the police took place to stop the SAPS from fighting the SADF when they go on strike. They can now march and loot together. More fun that way.

  • David

    So the criminals will have to address the officer as “sergeant”, “lieutenant”, etc. before laughing in their faces? Fair enough.

  • brigs

    Having recently, be involved in an indipentant servey, conducted for a thesis, on problem within the polices force, I can honestly say that far from needing to further militarise the police force, many of their member are saying that the ridged structure of the force is actually hampering crimanil investigation, precicly because a lower ranking officer is imediatly over rulled based purely on rank. Which means people who do say forensic investigation or truam counciling are out ranked and basicly redundant. So clearly they haven’t even bother to audit them selves in order to actually find out what issues are.

  • Fahk Moloch

    Uhum, I’ve alwayz been keen on Southern Zimbabwe as the new name for our creeping dictatorship. The likes of Chris Hani et al were eliminated because they championed demilitarization and social reform. SA’s plans are in tune with the creation of a global police state where freedom of speech and thought are distant memories. We’ll cry ourselves to sleep while spin doctors and masonic preacherz tell us all’s well. Our mantra of ‘Amandla Awethu, Aluta Continua’ needs revival, to be taught and sung by all. What is a referendum again?

  • http://mail.com vito

    Wonderful strategy but, just unfortunate modus-operandi felled on illiterate officers who shot anything, anywhere…

  • Moegamat Shareef Blankenberg

    I really cannot understand why we always have to revet to cheap sensationalism when it comes to government. This very blogger not so long ago suggested that the government ask the men (and women) on the ground what needs to be done to intensify the fight against poverty, crime, etc. Thats exactly what happened. The reversal to old ranking systems was not dreamt up at three in the morning in a cold dark room. It came from police officers through various interactions with police managment and government.

    And also to note that this is not an isolated occurence. In fact, Mlungisi, it is part of a broader crime prevention and combatting strategy. And this was also not arrived at at will. It was a carefully researched and consultative process to arrive at this.

    I think we should, even only for once, give this a chance. The fight against crime would not be one by one or two clever schemes, but through the participation of all in all campaigns against the scourge

  • Nahor Ecnarraf

    rename schools, hospitals, airports, streets, cities, provinces, departments, parastatels, and even job titles. Disband things, reinstate things. Keep moving the pieces around faster and faster. Maybe nobody will notice that the government is not actually adressing any of our problems as a nation.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za Musa

    Zuma and his new adminitration of ‘openness’! ha ha ha aren’t all such fools!!

  • Sarah Henkeman

    I don’t mind being regarded as stupid, it gives me the licence to ask stupid questions –

    1. Is crime a symptom of a sick society?
    2. Are individual perpetrators born ‘criminals’?
    3. Are young men in the majority as perpetrators and victims?
    4. Are young men the bulk of the police ‘force’?
    5. Do vigorous attempts at addressing symptoms ever cure anything? Or do symptoms go underground to return in more virulent forms?
    6. Why is it ok in global politics to talk to belligerents, to find out what their issues are? Why is it not ok to find out from perpetrators what they are so angry about and try to deal with that?
    7. Is it so that most perpetrators have been victims at one time or another?
    8. Given that this is a violent society, does it make any sense to assume that individual perpetrators are just ‘born that way’?
    9. Isn’t it time that we stopped fighting about the moral high ground and start to put our heads together to heal the society and those who reveal the depth of its decay to us?

    Just wondering.

  • Hugh

    Police station receives front, left and right profile pics of escaped bank robber.
    Later sends message to police HQ – “All three shot resisting arrest”

  • David Africa

    Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for the great comments. i am traveling somewhere with very limited Internet access so will only be able to reply to your comments in 3-4 days