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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”.