Sunday Tribune

Police change promises new discipline


HAS the government – as personifie­d by Deputy Minister Fikile Mbalula – taken leave of its collective senses by planning to re-form the Police Service as a highly discipline­d paramilita­ry force, as Professor Kader Asmal seems to think?

No doubt some observers will think so. But many others, who predicted a visible decline in the “civilianis­ed” SAPS in the past 15 years, would be inclined to disagree.

To understand the real issue, it is necessary to understand how South Africa’s national policing organisati­on started and how it evolved.

The old South African Police (SAP) was born in 1912 when the forces of various former colonies and territorie­s were amalgamate­d; most were paramilita­ry mounted gendarmeri­es which were under civilian control in peacetime but could be partly or wholly embodied into the military in wartime. The SAP was constitute­d along similar lines, and with a similar ethos.

SAP members’ training was dedicated to crime prevention but included a military-style element. Each recruit had a service rifle he retained throughout his career, wore a smart militaryst­yle uniform, drilled in military style and was part of a largely military rank structure. Crucially, he was also subject to military-style discipline.

The reason for all this was that the police force – not the Defence Force – was regarded as the country’s first line of defence.

Up to the 1960s, the South African Army consisted almost entirely of part-time military units. This was very cost-effective, but a part-time army cannot be mobilised overnight.

The police, however, constitute­d what is technicall­y known as a “force in being”. In other words, it was armed, trained and already on the ground.

The military sub-text to its role began to fade after the introducti­on of universal white male conscripti­on in the early 1960s, the result of which was that for the first time, South Africa had a military force in being. By now the SAP’s role was also becoming more political as internal resistance to government policies intensifie­d.

However, it remained basically a paramilita­ry force, like most police forces, especially in developing countries.

A great deal of media and public attention came to be focused on the activities of the Security Branch and its offshoots, but the backbone of the police remained the street cops and detectives whose primary function was crime prevention and the catching of malefactor­s – most of whom, thanks to a court system which then functioned well, ended up behind bars.

The street cops also became involved in politics, often because they were called on to deal with public order situations, or doing things like breaking down squatter settlement­s – all a brutal distortion of their primary thief-taking function.

Slowly the old-style discipline began to deteriorat­e.

Inevitably all this led to a reaction after 1994.

The police must be a civilian service, not a military-style force, it was argued by people who had no inkling of what made law-and-order forces tick. Military-style discipline had to go because it supposedly encouraged brutality. But militaryty­pe discipline is a double-edged sword. Although it can compel the police to undertake distastefu­l acts, it can also prevent them from doing such deeds.

Discipline itself is neutral. It can be used as a force for evil or as a force for good.

That is why police forces the world over tend to be paramilita­ry in both appearance and mindset.

By the very nature of their jobs, detectives in the old SAP were not so rigidly bound by strictures on dress and deportment (which also applies to the SAPS).

But there is a difference of roles here. Detectives are mainly the invisible men who swing into action after a crime, while the visible uniformed cops exist mainly to prevent such crimes taking place.

At the end of the day the only way to fight atrocities, corruption, inefficien­cy and general misconduct in the uniformed component – the workhorse of any police force – is by enforcing discipline of a kind one does not find outside military and paramilita­ry forces.

Military-style discipline’s true value is not that it inculcates mindless obedience, but that it sets clear boundaries, lays down explicit penalties for oversteppi­ng those boundaries – and then enforces them.

It demands smartness of appearance and suitable deportment, and an adherence to due process.

The mindless obedience argument does not really hold water anyway. One can have one’s cake and eat it.

By standing order the South African Army’s very specific code of conduct, which embraces both military and civilian concepts, must be read out aloud at virtually every gathering. There is no reason the same cannot be done in the police, and then enforced.

So a well-discipline­d uniformed force can be a tremendous force for good and a cornerston­e of democracy.

It depends mainly on the leadership, and in the past 15 years the top leadership has been anything but inspiring. Combine that with a general watering-down of discipline and the result was inevitable.

Jackie Selebi is a controvers­ial figure because of his friendship with various dodgy characters, but the public furore around this aspect has obscured the real flaw of his tenure, which was his failure (for whatever reason) to create and run a generally well-regarded, highly discipline­d corps of street cops.

The result, inter alia, has been to the disadvanta­ge of many police members who are highly dedicated and efficient.

One could take that one level higher and blame the man who appointed him, former president Thabo Mbeki (who also dealt law-enforcemen­t a crippling blow by abolishing the Commando Force, which played a vital police support role).

So Mbalula’s statements are not as crazy as Asmal might think, although the latter’s qualms about a re-militarise­d police force are justified, given the history of Africa.

Let us be clear about the matter, though: a re-invented paramilita­ry police force will stand or fall by what Mbalula and his colleagues, the minister and the new national police commission­er, do to provide the right leadership, both at the top and at all command levels lower down.

It will be a massive task, akin to getting a supertanke­r to change course in a short distance, because the police force has evolved in the past 15 years.

So there will have to be a firm and knowing hand on the wheel, not only to ensure that the new course is adhered to, but also to ensure that the tanker does not run aground on a reef labelled “2010” on the charts.

Steenkamp is a military analyst.

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