Thousands of South Africans offer their time and expertise for free to help secure the country, but the police do not seem to have much appetite to recruit these benefactors as police reservists.
This is what police experts believe, who are concerned about how few reservists are employed in the South African Police Service (SAPS).
In more than ten years, the police has lost around 90% of its reservists, which means that there are only 3,502 active police reservists left.
This is worrying, since “a good and large reservist force is the most effective way to combat crime”, says Dr. Johan Burger, police expert and researcher.
Grant McCleery, a former reservist who worked for the police for 33 years, says he would go back in the blink of an eye, “but then the police have to welcome us with open arms”.
The 59-year-old business owner worked as a reservist in various divisions of the South African Police Service (SAPD), before withdrawing with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I wanted to do my part for this country, which I love very much,” he says.
McCleery says he spent many happy years in the police service, but in his last few years things began to sour.
“The SAPS made it so difficult for us at the end,” he says.
“We would often arrive at the police station, then they don’t know what to do with us. We were not assigned to a roster, and there were no firearms or vehicles available.
“We were not appreciated at all and at that stage it was unrewarding work. In the end, most of us just walked.”
Mass exodus ‘complex problem’
Burger says there are several reasons why the number of police reservists has dwindled badly. “The trouble started in 2012, when the new reservist policy was announced and the national instructions on reservists were approved.”
According to Burger, several admission requirements have been adjusted and made more stringent. The same requirements that permanent police members must meet also now apply to reservists.
“In rural areas, for example, there are many people who live and work on farms who would be excellent candidates to become reservists, but because they have not passed matric, they cannot apply,” he says.
There are also new rules on the recognition of reservists. Police reservists must now wear badges that distinguish them from other police members.
“Someone who stands out from a distance as a reservist does not necessarily enjoy the same authority as full-fledged police members. The police already struggle to maintain authority, so for reservists it is even more difficult.”
Reservists also no longer receive ranks.
“Many reservists were proud to be promoted over time due to dedicated service, and the ranks also helped to maintain order and authority within the corps,” he says.
“Without this attraction, fewer people want to become reservists.”
The administration process for reservists has also deteriorated in the past few years, to such an extent that volunteers do not even receive feedback on their applications.
McCleery says this recently happened to one of his acquaintances. Weeks after submitting his application, he still hasn’t received a call.
“These are highly trained people who are willing to help and the SAPS simply does not make use of them.”
According to dr. Guy Lamb, criminologist at Stellenbosch University (SU), the latest numbers make it clear that the reservist force is not prioritized.
“It seems that the priority is to hire more permanent police members and expand that capacity,” he says.
The police service has shrunk by 12% in the last ten years and the Covid-19 pandemic was also a spoke in the wheel of any plans to increase this capacity.
Burger says that in the past two years the focus has been on the recruitment and training of permanent police members. Last year, 10,000 officers were already trained, which means that there are currently around 145,000 permanent police members.
However, according to Burger, the police force cannot keep up with population growth and the rate at which crime is increasing. Currently there is only one police member for every 417 citizens.
“Although these figures are better than two years ago, when there was only one policeman for every 430 citizens, the situation remains dire,” he says.
For Lamb, it does not make sense that the SAPS will not strive to use a free resource such as police reservists and build on it, especially because it is a so-called “force multiplier” that can lend a hand to smaller police stations.
Police reservists are authorized to take affidavits, are often deployed to policing certain areas and work late night shifts.
Burger says that the SAPS has recently realized the seriousness of the situation with regard to reservists and is busy trying to resolve the situation.
One of the steps that the SAPS has already taken was to conduct an audit to determine what the current state of affairs is and how many reservists have withdrawn from the service over how many years.
“The SAPS wants to see how they can persuade some of these volunteers to rejoin the reservist program,” says Burger.
“The police have already gone so far as to tell commanders of police stations in a letter, which I have seen, that anyone struggling with an application to become a reservist should contact the SAPS head office directly so that it can be further can be taken.”
The SAPS also recently started a research study to determine why so many reservists withdrew from the service in a short period of time.
“Based on the complaints from former police reservists, the hope is that the national instructions and policy are amended to iron out any problems they experience.”
‘No group so valuable’
Over the past ten years, more and more farm and neighborhood guards have been set up in an attempt to secure their communities themselves. Although valuable, Burger believes that these groups will never be able to fulfill the role of police reservists.
“These structures do not have the same powers as the police, so a member of the neighborhood watch is just a member of the public,” he says.
“When reservists are on duty, they have all the powers and authorities of police members. They can arrest people and conduct investigations, which is why it is so important that reservists’ numbers are built up again and they are better utilized.”