11 August 2021 | Story Prof Theodore Petrus | Photo Supplied
Prof Theodore Petrus is an associate professor in Anthropology at the UFS.

Opinion article by Prof Theodore Petrus, Associate professor in the Department of Anthropology.

In the latest episode of the controversies within the top leadership of the South African Police Service (SAPS), the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) dismissed the appeal by SAPS National Commissioner, Gen. Khehla Sitole, to overturn the decision made by the High Court that he, and both of his deputies, were found to be politically compromised, putting the interests of the ANC above those of the country.  Furthermore, the SCA judgment preceded the chaos of the looting and violence that swept across Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July, and that once again exposed, among other things, the perceived inability of the SAPS to adequately address public violence of this scale. 


The controversies surrounding Gen. Sitole are also not recent or new. He has been embroiled in various conflicts within the most senior leadership structures of the SAPS. The ongoing feud between Sitole and Police Minister Bheki Cele is by now well-known. Sitole is also the central figure involved in the controversial axing of Jeremy Vearey, head of the Western Cape SAPS detectives, as well as the targeting of Crime Intelligence head Peter Jacobs, and Andre Lincoln, head of the Western Cape’s Anti-Gang Unit. All three were involved in investigations relating to police corruption, specifically their involvement in providing firearms to gangsters in the Western Cape.

But what is the bigger picture of this latest situation involving the country’s top cop?

An analysis of the historical and contemporary context of the SAPS suggests that there is an observable pattern that points to the systematic weakening of the SAPS since the 1990s. Unlike other key state organs, the SAPS is perhaps the only one that has inherited, and continues to suffer from, a poor public image. Prior to 1994, the SAP served the interests of the political elite, and was used as the brutal enforcers of the apartheid government. Hence, in the eyes of the black majority, they were never really viewed as legitimate or trustworthy, which is why many communities sought to create their own alternative policing structures to deal with crime. Post-1994, the need to transform the police and gain the trust of communities became a priority. Unfortunately, certain key events since the 2000s, in which the SAPS played a significant part, have served to not only undo the efforts to transform the police, but have arguably weakened them as a credible bulwark against crime. 

A new ranking structure

The death of Andries Tatane in 2011 and the Marikana incident in 2012 were two major events that exposed the inherent weaknesses in the SAPS. Subsequent to these, excessive force in their handling of protests, growing allegations of police corruption and criminality, and the fact that most national commissioners left their posts under a cloud, further weakened the SAPS’ public image and its ability to properly combat crime. These issues have become commonplace within the SAPS and have shadowed the organisation from the highest levels of police management and leadership, right down to the levels of the ordinary officers on the ground.

But there is another dimension to this context worth noting. In 2010, a new ranking structure was introduced in the SAPS. The SAPS have adopted a military-type ranking structure. This decision was preceded by the recommendation of the former Deputy Minister of Police – at that time Fikile Mbalula – who wanted to make the police a paramilitary force with a ranking system mirroring that of the military. The decision was met with criticism, and ultimately led to a slight amendment to the ranking system in 2016. However, the military-style ranking system did not completely disappear.
This brings me to the main question that, for me, has emerged from the problems in the SAPS. Is the endgame of the chaos in SAPS to ultimately create a restructured paramilitary police force? In a previous article, I alluded to the problem-reaction-solution strategy employed by those in authority to convince the public to accept a particular course of action. In short, a ‘problem’ is created. In this case, the problem is the systematic weakening of the SAPS that has been going on for decades. This has occurred parallel with skyrocketing crime levels in the country. The problem is then allowed to escalate to crisis levels, until the public reacts in a way where they demand the authorities to step in and resolve the issue. This is then the desired ‘reaction’. The authorities may then at this point introduce their ‘solution’, which in this case could be the creation of a paramilitary policing structure, with the support of the public. It is possible that the backlash against the original attempt to paramilitarise the police in the 2010s is what prompted the authorities to go this route. Perhaps it has always been their intention to create a paramilitary police force. But without the willingness of the public to support this, it was always going to be a challenge to simply force it on the population.

So, what was the strategy?

Create conditions where the public could be systematically conditioned to accept paramilitary policing as a viable solution to the country’s policing problem. Create instability in the police leadership. Create a perception of the police as corrupt and involved in criminality. At the same time, allow crime levels to skyrocket and paint the police as inadequate in addressing high crime levels. This, in turn, has led to increasing calls from various sectors of the public for the military to be brought in to assist the police to quell crime. We know that this was done to address gang violence in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. We also know that the military has been brought in to assist with enforcing COVID-19 lockdown regulations. And now, most recently, the military has been called in again to assist in addressing the violent looting that has happened in the country. When one takes all of this into account, it is conceivable that we are perhaps being prepared for a new permanent paramilitary police force. 

Whether or not this will in fact materialise remains to be seen. But if this is the endgame, an even more significant question is – what will this mean for our rights and freedoms as citizens?   

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