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Brawn or brains: Whither policing in SA?

The recent appointment of Bheki Cele as police commissioner has once again brought the persistently high levels of crime to the fore. Despite some substantial improvements, SAPS are struggling to get a handle on the crime situation. As has become par for the course, Cele has publicly adopted an aggressive approach to crime including his controversial position that police officers require more protection and leeway to deal with armed criminals.

This seems to reflect the general position of the ruling party, as reflected in statements by the police minister, his deputy and the president himself on numerous occasions prior to the recent elections. Though this gung-ho approach might be popular with large segments of the police and gain short-term political advantage for the ruling party, we have to ask our police bosses some crucial questions. The most obvious one: has the government or police conducted any serious study that shows the persistence of crime to be related to a “lack of toughness on criminals” or the lack of authority on the part of the police? The second logical question would be to look at whether such a supposed “toughness on crime” would actually make a substantial dent in the occurrence of serious crime in South Africa.

Though some conservative commentators promote the imprisonment of large numbers of people, this approach has not been successful in places like the US, where the prison population has increased exponentially over the past 20 years. It is a matter of serious concern that the adoption of the new “toughness regime” is not based on a well-considered analysis of the shortcomings in our anti-crime approach but on an attitude that will perpetuate a macho and cavalier tendency among many police officers.

The commissioner and his political bosses are aware that the SAPS continue to spend millions of taxpayer rands on compensation payouts resulting from police negligence and abuse. Creating an enabling environment where police officers feel protected and indeed encouraged in the use of violence is no way to improve the critical relationship between the police and communities, nor to developing a professionalised police service. This is particularly worrying when the commissioner’s political bosses are seen to be competing with him to see who “the toughest cop of them all” is.

The responsibility of oversight entrusted to the minister can only function properly if he is able to moderate the (sometimes) understandably tough language of a police commissioner, instead of being swept away by the toughness tide as well. Curiously the post-apartheid discourse on fighting crime in South Africa has become more conservative over the years and the idealism of a progressive crime-prevention strategy seems to be lost as more radical measures are sought by politicians and police alike. Maybe we need a more considered approach that will compel the police to effectively perform their functions within the human-rights constitutional framework we now have, instead of backsliding into the adoption of the outdated and reactionary discourse of kragdadigheid.