Friday, December 07, 2012

South Africa: To What Extent has the South African Police Service Become Militarised?

Source: ISS

To What Extent has the South African Police Service Become Militarised?

ohan Burger, Senior Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria

The Marikana tragedy, coupled with high levels of police brutality, has been understood by some as being partly a consequence of the militarisation of the South African Police Service (SAPS). The most obvious indicator of the militarisation of the SAPS for many was the change from civilian to military-style ranks in April 2010. However, when Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa announced the rank change on 12 March 2010, it was clear that he had more than simply a new rank system in mind:
We have taken a stance as this Government of fighting crime and fighting it tough. The rank changes are therefore in line with our transformation of the Force,not only in terms of a name change but change in attitude, thinking and operational duties … This should not be misinterpreted as merely the militarization of the police but as part of our new approach of being fierce towards criminals, while lenient to citizens’ safety and maintaining good discipline within the Force ... For us to achieve these and other objectives there are certain steps we have undertaken to ensure we win this warThis is a people’s war against criminals. For any Force to discharge its tasks effectively there needs to be a commander because wars are led by commanders [own emphasis].
It is a moot point as to whether a rank change in itself is enough to militarise or demilitarise a police agency. It is also debatable to what extent excessive use of force by the police is a product only of the so-called militarisation process presented by the Minister. It is also questionable whether the SAPS was able to achieve the various militarisation-related objectives emphasised by the Minister, which included:
  • Adopting military type ranks
  • Changing the name of the police to a ‘Force’ instead of a ‘Service’
  • Changing attitudes, thinking and ‘operational duties’
  • Adopting a new and fiercer approach towards criminals
  • Maintaining good discipline and morale within the ‘Force’
  • Appointing commanders to lead the ‘war on crime’
According to the Collins Concise Dictionary, militarisation means ‘to convert to military use’ and ‘to imbue with militarism’. According to the thesaurus, militarisation means ‘to equip or train for war’. Militarism is defined, inter alia, as ‘military spirit; pursuit of military ideals’. It could perhaps be argued that the adoption of military-style ranks was intended to create a ‘military spirit’ within the SAPS. Similarly, terminology expecting the police to wage a ‘war on crime’ could be seen in the same way.

Nevertheless, it should be obvious that using the political rhetoric of the ‘war on crime’ is something completely different from the way the military would start ‘equipping and preparing for war’. A ‘war’ in military terms essentially implies armed conflict between two opposing groups, while references to a ‘war on crime’ in a democracy can never be anything more than the use of hyperbole to describe lawful actions by law enforcement agencies aimed at curtailing criminal activity.

When read in context, it is also apparent that the only relevance of the notion of a ‘military spirit’ is little more than a longing by the political and police leadership for the kind of discipline, control, morale and dedication that is usually associated with military organisations. This point is largely illustrated by the following excerpt from the Minister’s media statement on 12 March 2010:
To a large extent this is about instilling command and control within the police.  Practical operations by police who are dedicated in their duties, responding to crime scenes on time, working hard and smart and upholding the highest form of discipline. To this end, the newly formed Tactical Response Team model is currently underway and we have already begun to see swift responses to crimescenes, resulting in apprehending dangerous criminals [own emphasis].
That the SAPS believed some form of militarisation was needed to improve its discipline, morale and consequently its effectiveness and efficiency, was evidenced by a letter on 31 March 2010 from the National Commissioner of SAPS at the time, General Bheki Cele, to SAPS commanders wherein he introduced the new ranks:
The objective to become a force in the fight against crime and the maintenance of discipline and the upliftment of morale within the police are high on [the] agenda. The introduction of a new rank structure will ensure the realization of the department’s objective to become a force in the fight against crime, it should facilitate the enhancement of discipline, instilling public confidence and the upliftment of morale within the police ranks …
It is now almost three years since the new rank system was introduced and these statements were made. However, many of the expected changes presented by the Minister of Police have failed to materialise. For example, the initial reference to a ‘Force’ has long disappeared and the term ‘Service’ remains part of the official name of the organisation as prescribed by the South African Constitution. During an ISS conference on ‘Policing in South Africa: 2010 and beyond’, Professor Anthony Minnaar, of the University of South Africa (UNISA), suggested that the form of rank names or titles in the SAPS is irrelevant. Rather, he argued that a balance should be found between two seemingly opposing concepts used to guide police doctrine in South Africa, namely ‘community policing’ and ‘militarised policing’.

As I argued at the time (see, the tension between the ethos of law enforcement and the ethos of community policing creates a form of ‘institutional schizophrenia’. A police ‘force’ emphasises the ethos of control over the community, while a police ‘service’ emphasises an ethos of care and support. This poses real challenges when thinking about training, equipping and managing a police agency expected to do both. The dilemma facing policy makers is finding the most appropriate ethos or an acceptable balance that would best serve South Africa’s constitutional imperatives as well as effectively address our security needs.

Apart from introducing military style ranks, the SAPS has not in any meaningful way met any of the other requirements for the ethos of militarisation to take root. The reasons for the brutality and excessive force that cause so much concern among many South Africans have much more to do with structural weaknesses relating to leadership, internal accountability and the quality of many of the officials recruited. These weaknesses have existed for a long time now and changing ranks was a political response from President Jacob Zuma’s administration to demonstrate that policing would change. However, apart from changing ranks, little has been achieved in addressing these fundamental weaknesses and therefore the problems of police brutality, ill-discipline and corruption continue.
The argument that there should be a change back to the previous rank system to ‘demilitarise’ the SAPS is unlikely to have much impact on the fundamental challenges facing the organisation. The rank system is not the reason for the problems faced by the police and moving back to the previous rank system at this stage will not solve the deep-seated problems at the root of functional failures by the police. Rather, such a move would largely result in additional uncertainty and confusion within the SAPS and further undermine police morale. Rather steps should be taken to develop the vision of the SAPS as a professional police agency to guide further attempts at police reform.