Keeping an eye on the cops

keeping an eye on copsOne of Parliament’s major tasks is overseeing the performance of the executive branch of government; that is, all the ministries and departments, including the Defence Force and the SA Police Service. A quick glance around the world shows that, where a country’s police force is subject to strong civilian control and oversight, it tends to work within the law, to respect human rights, and to combat crime effectively. On the other hand, where the police force escapes civilian control, it usually becomes a law unto itself, and human rights abuses, excessive force, corruption and unaccountability all flourish within its ranks. When the police spend their time breaking the law, they cannot fight crime with any consistency or efficiency.


We have certainly moved on in South Africa from the days when the police were a vital cog in the machinery of apartheid, enforcing oppressive laws, clamping down on protest, and even carrying out assassinations as part of the ‘dirty war’ of that era. Post-1994, an attempt was made to transform the old police ‘force’ into a new police ‘service’.

But more and more voices are being raised of late, warning of increasing levels of police brutality, corruption and arrogance. According to the Institute for Security Studies, the number of reported cases of police brutality rose by more than three times between 2002 and 2012; and since 2007 almost 12 000 criminal cases have been opened with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the body that looks into allegations against police officers.

Many people were shocked to learn recently that 1 448 policemen and women, many of them very senior officers, have convictions for such serious crimes as robbery, rape and murder! Somehow, they were able to join the SAPS without disclosing their criminal records. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa has now revealed that 449 officers were dismissed for committing criminal offences over the last year.

All of this points to a police service that is heading out of control. One of the problems lies in its top management. Two of its last three National Commissioners had to be fired for corruption or mismanagement, with one of them, Jackie Selebi, receiving a jail term. The current Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has not inspired much confidence since her appointment.

As for the political heads of the police, who can forget the infamous instruction of the 2009 Deputy Minister, Susan Shabangu, that the police should “not worry about the regulations”, but instead “kill the bastards”, referring to suspected criminals. The current minister has so far avoided such irresponsible rhetoric, but he has failed to clamp down on corruption and lawlessness within his department.

All of this constitutes a worrying threat to the rule of law in South Africa, and therefore to the stability of our democracy. This brings us back to Parliament, and specifically to the portfolio committee on police, and its oversight role. We are fortunate that two of the more forceful women in Parliament serve on this committee, and both of them are passionate about the role of the police: supporting them when necessary, but not being afraid to call them to account.

Annelize van Wyk, an ANC MP, is the chair of the committee, while the official opposition’s spokesperson on police is the vociferous DA MP, Dianne Kohler Barnard. Ms van Wyk has stated the problem clearly: “The SAPS has a severe credibility problem.” Ms Kohler Barnard put it even more forthrightly, referring to the level of criminality within the police as being “at crisis point”. It will be interesting to see how these two experienced MPs
and their colleagues on the portfolio committee, carry out their oversight duties in the coming months. Once a culture of impunity and unaccountability develops in a police force, it is extremely difficult to root it out. In the absence of firm, swift action by the minister—and there is little sign of that—our best hope lies with Parliament.