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

If the latest crime stats issued by the Ministry of Police are anything to go by, it should be clear to most of us that a chaotic police and crime intelligence service cannot fulfil its mandate of adequately addressing crime in the country. 

The much-publicised debacle regarding the suspension of Lieutenant-General Peter Jacobs, (former) head of Crime Intelligence, is the latest in a slew of events involving the SAPS and Crime Intelligence that has left the South African public both confused and justifiably concerned. And once again, seemingly at the heart of this latest controversy, is corruption within the SAPS and the Crime Intelligence unit. 

Jacobs, along with five other colleagues, was suspended at the end of 2020 following allegations of corruption, specifically, the irregular procurement of personal protective equipment, involving the use of a secret service account. However, from Jacobs’ perspective, there was evidence that SAPS and crime intelligence officials had abused the account. Some within the SAPS believed that Jacobs was deliberately targeted because he was exposing the looting of the secret account. 

After challenging his suspension in the Labour Court, Jacobs was seemingly vindicated, with the court lifting the suspension. In response however, National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole officially transferred Jacobs out of his previous position as Head of Crime Intelligence, to Division Inspectorate, which, for all intents and purposes, is seen by some SAPS officers as a demotion. 

The serious consequences of corruption and criminality 

Going back just a few months ago, we also still recall the same National Commissioner firing his Deputy, Bonang Mgwenya, who was accused of a string of criminal activities including fraud, corruption, money laundering and theft.
Corruption and criminality in the highest ranks of the SAPS, whether proven or alleged, have two very serious consequences, both of which seriously impact on the safety and security of South African citizens.

The first consequence is the trickle-down effect of police corruption and criminality from the top structures to the bottom. In a SABC News report in February 2021, Corruption Watch reported that it had received numerous allegations of police corruption from whistleblowers. Offences included everything from bribery to sextortion. So pervasive is police corruption that Corruption Watch has gone as far as creating a web-based tool, Veza, which allows the public to report any corruption or misconduct by SAPS members. Driving the nail in the coffin even further, a 2019 report by Corruption Watch, found that South African police were the most corrupt public servants, having overtaken other sectors such as health and local government. These few examples illustrate the trickle-down effect of corruption and criminality in the police from the highest levels. 

The second serious consequence, and the one that impacts on the public directly, is the inevitable skyrocketing crime levels. Looking at the latest police crime stats, it is clear that the lockdown policing strategies were not very effective. If we take a look at just one example of violent crime, namely gang-related violence, gang shootings and related violence, not only continued, but increased. There are various reported cases of increased gang violence despite ‘stricter’ policing during the lockdown. 

How does police corruption factor into this? 

In September 2020, the SAPS Anti-Gang Unit Section Head, Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear, was assassinated outside his home in Cape Town. Kinnear was apparently investigating a firearms licensing scandal that implicated senior police officers and underworld figures. The cause of this is ongoing corruption at the Central Firearms Registry that enables firearm licences to be issued to suspected gang members. So, while on our television screens and in the newspapers senior police officials tell us they are doing everything they can to curb violent crime in the country, we are also confronted with serious police criminality and corruption of this magnitude. The end result is a serious threat to the safety and security of citizens.

What can be done about this sad state of affairs in the SAPS?

The most critical thing is to take a good hard look at police culture in South Africa. In an anthropological sense, culture can be understood as a complex system, involving both ideological and material aspects that influence the way in which things are done by members of that culture. All organisations and institutions have their own culture, which is why we often hear of organisational culture, or institutional culture. The ideological aspects that underpin a culture include things like value systems, beliefs, and attitudes. These in turn influence perceptions of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour. If we put this in context in police culture, it seems that corruption and criminality are regarded as acceptable by many within the SAPS, sadly even at the highest levels of authority. These values then impact on the subsequent behaviour of SAPS officials at various levels of the organisation, and those who do not conform are ostracised, targeted and, in extreme cases, even killed. If we are to transform the current SAPS culture, it has to start with transforming the underlying negative values, attitudes and beliefs that seem to influence the current problems. 

In order to achieve meaningful cultural change within the SAPS, we need to start with the leadership. This is another discussion altogether because it involves both the political leadership, as well as the senior SAPS leadership. At the moment, both are ill-equipped to lead cultural change within the SAPS. We need to get the leadership right before we can even think of transforming the culture of corruption and criminality throughout the rest of the SAPS. 4

Opinion article by Prof Theodore Petrus, Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State (UFS) .

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