Local councils, not the SAPS, should carry local crime prevention burden

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by City Press on 20 February 2024

The clear rule of thumb in South Africa is that the more centralised something is, and the more beholden to national government, the worse it will perform. This can be seen not only in state monopolies like Eskom and Transnet, but in crime prevention.

Due to government mismanagement, the South African Police Service (SAPS) is not a well-run organisation. The corruption and incompetence evident in its operations has contributed immensely to crime flourishing.

Between 2012 and 2023, the murder rate has increased by 77%. On average, 75 people are killed every day in this country. Ian Cameron of the Action Society has even claimed that more people were murdered in South Africa than in war-torn Ukraine over a three-month period.

The national government has not made any meaningful effort to address our cataclysmic level of violent crime or expressed any sincere desire to get crime under control. National Health Insurance, Basic Income Grant, Expropriation Without Compensation, and a host of other showy but terrible policies, always take precedence over the safety and lives of law-abiding South Africans.

Even the criminalisation of otherwise peaceful and voluntary activities in virtually every social domain has garnered undue attention which should be focused on combating violence.

It is clear that national government-run law enforcement is failing. Section 12 of the Constitution, which makes adequate safety and security a matter of constitutional importance, is treated with utter contempt.

SAPS personnel has been steadily shrinking over the years, while crime rates soar.

SAPS has demanded a higher budget and more resources. This may help, but it does not solve the fundamental problem with SAPS and centralised law enforcement.

When a centralised entity is captured, corrupted, or made to be incompetent, that rot seeps into every aspect of the organisation – until it is almost all useless. SAPS has far too much endemic corruption, lack of training, incompetence, and apathy at an institutional level to be at all useful to the public.

There are good officers in the police service, but they are victims of an institutional, structural fault in the logic of policing in South Africa.

Any genuine effort to solve crime in this country must involve decentralisation. There must be a devolution of policing, whereby localities, enterprises, and communities can formulate the best strategy for their individual circumstances to deal with crime.

The Institute for Security Studies proposes equipping local police commanders with the resources needed for their specific scenarios. But we must go one step further.

Local municipalities should have more authority and control over their local police. While metro police do not currently investigate crimes, acting more in a support role to SAPS, this should be flipped. Metro and local police should be the fundamental law enforcement for their area, investigating crimes, and taking decisive and personalised action to deal with the crimes affecting their area.

SAPS should provide support for investigating crimes that go beyond a single area.

Metro police services, especially in Cape Town, have already shown that they are more accountable to local government, less corrupt, and more efficient. Since its founding in 2001, the Cape Town Metro Police Service has ensured that traffic law enforcement in the city is undertaken professionally, and with minimal corruption.

The mandate of local police should expand.

Like in the United States, where different areas have their own police departments, our municipalities should too. And SAPS or an equivalent national government agency should only become relevant when the crime is no longer localised or the local entity requires assistance. It should fulfil a similar role to the American FBI, and reform to become an elite task force to reflect this change.

In the United States, if a local law enforcement agency cannot fulfil its role, the county-level law enforcement, state-level law enforcement, and then even federal-level law enforcement can step in, for example.

Decentralising police will solve the problem of centralised rot infesting every police department. Local departments will be able to equip themselves with the resources and strategies needed to solve their particular issues. A hypothetical Cape Town Police Department could apply its lack of corruption and transparency to equipping an anti-gang task force with a lower chance of captured police officers being on the take: A necessary step to stop the scourge of gangsterism.

On top of this decentralising of police departments, legislation should be introduced to empower private security to aid law enforcement – perhaps in allowing limited detention of suspects, outsourcing investigations, riot response, and providing manpower for arresting violent perpetrators.

As of 2022, there were close to 2.7 million registered security guards with 586 042 in active employment. This is compared to the 140 048 SAPS personnel in that same year. There are roughly four private security guards per police officer in South Africa.

This manpower pool will address much of the police officer shortfall.

On top of that, it is incredibly hard for criminal syndicates to capture and corrupt every single private security agency. A constant cycling of outsourced private security auxiliaries would prevent rot from setting in. And non-performing individuals and agencies will be easy to fire and replace.

Crime is a blight on this country, that erodes every aspect of our society.

The government doesn’t seem to care if SAPS thrives or dies, but we must. The first step towards fixing our law enforcement is ensuring that our police departments are run at the local level, being held accountable to the community that they serve.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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