Keep policing local


By Nicholas Woode-Smith

The practice in South Africa clearly shows that the more centralized and the more dependent on the central government something is, the poorer it will perform. We see this not only in state monopolies such as Eskom and Transnet, but also in crime prevention.

The government’s mismanagement means that the South African Police Service (SAPS) does not function properly. The corruption and incompetence that characterizes the SAPS’ operations contributes greatly to crime flourishing.

Between 2012 and 2023, the homicide rate increased by 77%. An average of 75 people are killed every day in our country. Ian Cameron of Action Society even claims that over a period of three months more people were murdered in South Africa than died in the war-torn Ukraine.

The central government makes no effort to deal with the disastrous levels of violent crime with any sense and shows no genuine desire to curb crime. The National Health Insurance (NHI), Basic Income Allowance (BIG), Expropriation Without Compensation (OSV) and a host of other flashy but dubious policies always take precedence over the lives and safety of law-abiding citizens.

Even the criminalization of otherwise peaceful and voluntary activities in almost every socio-societal area is unnecessarily receiving a lot of attention, which should instead be focused on combating violence.

Law enforcement as operated by central government is clearly failing miserably. Article 12 of the Constitution, which makes adequate safety and security a matter of constitutional importance, is obviously being disregarded.

The SAPS’s staff numbers have steadily shrunk over the years, while crime figures have skyrocketed.

Bheki Cele, Minister of Police, SAPS, Police

The SAPS is pushing for more money and resources. This may help, but does not yet solve the fundamental problems in the police service and with centralized law enforcement.

When a centralized institution is hijacked, infected, or incapacitated, the rot permeates every aspect of the institution – until it is, so to speak, useless. The SAPS suffers from far too much endemic corruption, lack of training, incompetence and apathy at an institutional level to be of any use to the public.

There are good police members in the SAPS, but they are the victims of an institutional, structural deficiency in the context of policing in South Africa.

An honest attempt to curb crime in our country must include decentralization. Policing needs to be decentralised, so that local areas, businesses and communities can formulate the best strategies for their individual circumstances to deal with crime.

The Institute for Security Studies suggests that local police commanders should be equipped with the necessary resources for their specific scenarios. However, we should take it a step further.

Local municipalities should be able to exercise more authority and control over their local police. The metro police do not investigate crimes and instead only provide assistance to the SAPS, but this should change. The metro police and local police should be the fundamental law enforcers for their area by investigating crimes and taking decisive and personalized action to deal with crime committed in their area.

The SAPS must provide support for the investigation of crimes that extend beyond the borders of an area.

Metropolitan police services, especially in Cape Town, have already shown that they are more accountable to the local population, less corrupt, and more efficient. Since their establishment in 2001, the Cape Town Metropolitan Police Service has ensured that the traffic laws in Cape Town are applied professionally and with minimal corruption.

The mandate of local police services must be expanded.

As in America, where different regions have their own police departments, our municipalities should have them as well. And the SAPS or an equivalent central government institution must only get involved when the crime is no longer only of local importance or when the local institution needs help. The institution must then perform a similar function to the American FBI and reform in such a way that it becomes an elite task force to reflect this change.

In America, for example, it works in such a way that if a local law enforcement institution cannot fulfill its role, the law enforcement authority at district level, state level, or even federal level can intervene, for example.

A decentralization of the police service is a solution to the problem of centralized rot, which affects each and every section of the police service. Local police departments will be able to equip themselves with the resources and strategies needed to solve their specific problems. Hypothetically speaking, a Cape Town police service could use its transparency and absence of corruption to equip an anti-gang task force with police officers who are less likely to be hijacked and bribed: a necessary step to curb the ravages of gang activity.

Alongside this decentralization of the policing function, legislation should also be introduced which would empower private security forces to assist with law enforcement – ​​perhaps to a limited extent in detaining suspects, outsourcing investigations, assisting with riot control and providing manpower to arrest violent offenders to take.

In 2022, there were approximately 2.7 million registered security guards in the country, with 586,042 actively employed. In contrast, the SAPS employed 140,048 staff in the same year. That is roughly four private security guards for every police officer in South Africa.

This source of manpower can go a long way in filling the shortage of policemen.

In addition, it is extremely difficult for crime syndicates to hijack and bribe every single private security company. A constant rotation of outsourced private security departments will prevent things from degenerating. It will also be easy to fire and replace underperforming individuals and institutions.

Crime ravages the country and violates every aspect of our society.

The government apparently does not care whether the SAPS prospers or declines, but we must. The first step to fixing law enforcement in South Africa is to ensure that our police institutions are managed at the local level and are accountable to the communities they serve.

  • Nicholas Woode-Smith is a fellow of the Free Market Foundation and Western Cape coordinator of the Foundation’s Campaign for Home Rule. He is an economic historian, policy analyst, and author. Numerous writings on South Africa’s policy framework and economy have appeared from his pen.

This article initially on February 20, 2024 in City Press appear