By Zel-Marí Gelderblom
The police service’s responsibility is to prevent crime, uphold the law, deal with crime-related emergencies and provide support, and they play an important role in maintaining public order and enforcing the law within their jurisdiction. The police service is also there to deter potential offenders by prosecuting offenders.
Police officers have the power to enforce laws, investigate individuals and, if necessary, arrest alleged criminals.
But what happens when they fail in these responsibilities? Who fills the void? The citizens of societies with governments that fulfill their responsibilities trust that the police will fulfill the above roles with efficiency and integrity, but what happens when this is no longer the case?
Crime is increasing daily, which is undoubtedly an indication that would-be criminals are not afraid of the police – this while most citizens live in fear due to corrupt police officers. A recent example of this is the blue light brigade who allegedly assaulted motorists on the N1 motorway. A further concern is the lack of basic resources in the police service. It has recently been reported that there is an imbalance between the number of police personnel and the large population they have to serve. These shortcomings and mismatches add to the challenges facing the police.
Between 2019 and 2021 alone, it was reported that 13 police stations in South Africa were robbed, where the criminals stole firearms and ammunition. In 2018/-19, three police stations were robbed, during which 18 weapons were stolen, including pistols, rifles, shotguns; as well as 235 rounds of ammunition. Ultimately, eight weapons were recovered, and ten individuals were arrested.
What is extremely worrying is that none of the persons arrested have been prosecuted to date. Two criminal cases appeared before the court, but one of these cases was later withdrawn. In 2020, two police stations were robbed and eight guns and 277 rounds of ammunition were stolen. In the 2020/21 financial year, a further eight stations were robbed during which 52 guns and 470 rounds of ammunition were stolen – only nine weapons were recovered and only 14 people were arrested in 2021, but no one was prosecuted.
As a result, it is not strange that private security firms are hired to protect police stations, a clear sign of the decline of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and an indication of South Africa’s never-ending crime problems. It is disturbing to see police stations being vandalized and broken into. This undermines the credibility of the police as well as the public’s confidence in the police service’s overall capabilities. From these cases, it is also clear that police stations are seen as easy targets by criminals, something that is extremely worrying.
This raises the question: If the police cannot protect themselves, how can they protect ordinary citizens? Then one asks oneself how it is possible that these robberies happen again and again? Why is the police service unable to protect themselves and when did the police become laughable to criminals, and criminals to Jan and Alleman?
The shortage of vehicles in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, among others, also causes significant challenges. The maintenance and repair of vehicles at both internal workshops and external service providers is not only poor, but unlicensed vehicles cannot be used until the fines have been paid in Johannesburg. The KwaNobuhle police station in Uitenhage also faces challenges with only seven working vehicles at their disposal.
Another issue is the culture in the police which unfortunately encourages acts of corruption among some officers. This may include accepting bribes, abusing authority, or covering up criminal activity.
In contrast, private security guards help the SAPS every day in the fight against crime for the benefit of all South African citizens and are part of the solution. For each police officer there are four private security guards. At least it speaks of a practical alternative.
Private security companies have increased drastically in recent years. This trend is accompanied by communities that have begun to take their security into their own hands in the form of neighborhood and farm guards, precisely because of concerns about gun violence, rising crime rates and a growing lack of trust in the police.
Community safety structures are also increasingly being put in the spotlight, just think of AfriForum’s meeting of neighborhood guards on 13 October at the Voortrekker Monument. This action shows how volunteers take responsibility for safety in their communities. These are ordinary people who sacrifice their time to protect others and thereby make a difference. During the operation, these structures across the country responded to 145 separate incidents.
Last month, AfriForum neighborhood guards carried out 21 arrests in the Strand in collaboration with the local police, Fidelity ADT, AM Security and Vetus Schola. Another AfriForum neighborhood watch, Walker Drive, caught a burglar in Gqeberha in collaboration with Extreme Security and Atlas Security.
This form of crime prevention is often characterized by communities that are heavily involved in initiatives or projects that are managed by community members themselves to prevent crime in their own neighbourhoods. This typically involves voluntary neighborhood watches that patrol certain residential areas, or act as the “eyes and ears” of the police. They organize themselves and report any suspicious activity either to each other or directly to the local police.
John de Villiers, the editor of the LexisDigest, writes that the valuable contribution of community organizations, both during and after the lawlessness in KwaZulu-Natal in 2021, highlights the role that neighborhood watches play in preventing crime, especially when working with the SAPS and security agencies. Neighborhood watches should be an integral part of the community policing philosophy. One that aims to achieve effective crime control by creating proactive partnerships and programs with communities.
When the police cannot protect themselves, or the citizens of South Africa, and are instead seen as a burden on the tax payer, can one then blame the public at all for using private security companies to protect themselves instead? Or that some communities start taking the law into their own hands as a large percentage of our country’s citizens simply cannot afford private security?
Then the question is asked whether it is right to pay taxes for a police service that is incompetent? Or is it better for communities to support private security companies and community safety structures to protect ourselves and give peace of mind?
- Zel-Marí Gelderblom is the coordinator of content and media relations at AfriForum and has a master’s degree (cum laude) in Gender Politics at Nelson Mandela University.