Perhaps the scariest phrase to come out of a Mail and Guardian investigation into South African police training methods is that the South African Police Service is ‘no longer a police service, it’s a police force’. Many interviews were conducted with anonymous yet reliable sources. Voice and video recordings portrayed the extreme abuse suffered by cadets which could explain an abnormally high number of drop-outs in the initial stages of the police training programme. It seems the SAPS has indeed adopted the ‘police force instead of services’ approach and that is a terrifying reality.
There is no escaping the fact that the police must be equipped with the skill and means to protect themselves against criminal and violent elements. In a country where strike action and public protests are common practice, the police are often in the line of hostile fire. Entry into various unsavoury addresses in pursuit of wanted persons could easily mean a ride to the mortuary before the shift is over. It is, however, safe to say that an obsessive focus on an offensive police force can be just as disastrous as not paying police and public safety any attention at all.
A shift from this aggressive mind-set is necessary, sooner rather than later. The investigation was done a couple of years ago and today, it is ominous when one thinks back to the deaths of Atlegang Aphane, Andries Tatane and striking miners in the Marikana Massacre. Could these deaths and many others have been prevented in the South African Polices Service still provided the service that it should? How will the police investigation explain the recent death of Mido Macia? What explanation can be considered acceptable for dragging a man behind a moving car until he dies?
News24 reported a drop in the number of people who die while in the custody of the South African police. The figure dropped by ten percent to 720 last year. 720 people! That is 720 too many. There are procedures to be followed from the time of arrest, to a court appearance, a trial, a verdict and ultimately a conviction or an acquittal. These are set out in the constitution. Nowhere in this flow of justice is there allowance for any treatment of a person that should result in that person dying while in police custody. South Africa has no death penalty and even if it was in place, it certainly would be unacceptable for mere policemen to execute people at will.
Corruption is probably the biggest problem with the criminal, justice and safety landscape in South Africa but, it is still just one problem in an array of issues. Training and development is another major hurdle that the South African police need to overcome urgently. There is an unacceptable number of unsolved cases and others that are still under investigation even after many years of being active and open. This clearly shows inadequate investigative resources. This can be directly attributed to ineffective human resources and training management.
South Africa is known for being technologically forward but most of the tools available for forensic as well as pathological investigations are outdated and not in line with the crime fighting demands of the country. Where recent and effective technology is available, there is a lack of qualified forensic professionals and that leads to demotivating backlogs.
When looking at the challenges facing the police in the execution of their duties and considering the fears and well-founded concerns of the public, it is easy to see that the solution lies in bringing back the service aspect of the police. The police should not seek to rule with an iron fist but rather, to honour the SAPS vision which is, as stated in the career booklet, “to create a safe and secure environment for all people in South Africa”.