Police Minister Fikile Mbalula has been talking tough on crime, but the writer argues that such bravado has encouraged heavy-handed policing. Picture: SAPS
The first duty of any state, as any student of political science will tell you, is to ensure the security of its citizens. There is no doubt that South Africa is failing in this regard.

With the recent release of crime statistics, South Africans are all talking about the frightening levels of crime. Carjackings have increased by an astonishing 14.5% and robbery, sexual offences and murders have also risen.

It’s clear that violent crime is out of control and has been since the 1980s. Police brutality is spiralling out of control and political violence, within the ruling party and against grassroots activists, is escalating.

The poor are most at risk as they seldom receive support from the police, can’t afford private security and don’t live behind high walls.

But it is the fears of the middle classes that drive our public discourse about violent crime. And farm murders always make big news; as we have seen in recent days. Their fears are legitimate. We all have a right to live in safety.

However, the problem when the debate about crime is dominated by the middle class is that all poor people are often represented as a threat when neither crime nor violence can be reduced to any class of people.

The fear of violent crime is very real and Bheki Cele, a man who rose to power in the ANC in the 1980s, had considerable support for his skop, skiet and donder approach to crime when he was commissioner.

And it seems that our flamboyant police minister, Fikile Mbalula, also enjoys support for his "crush their balls" and "make them drink urine" approach.

Many citizens feel that human rights approaches to policing have failed and that it is time to get tough. These sentiments continue to drive public support, across race.

But a "shoot to kill" and "crush their balls" approach to crime has not solved the problem. This is not surprising. International experience shows that an escalation of police violence tends to simply escalate criminal violence.

What works is the development of an efficient police force that is able to secure high rates of arrest and conviction. This is something that we seriously lack.

Furthermore, the macho approach to policing driven by Mbalula has worsened the culture of violence in the force with the result that many officers feel that they can engage in violence with impunity.

This is often sadistic day-to-day harassment of ordinary citizens and is something that the middle classes are beginning to suffer too. We cannot continue to endure such high rates of violent crime, and decisive action needs to be taken to halt the tide of police brutality and the increasing politicisation of the police force.

However, the politicisation of the force suits the ruling elite and so it’s clear that pressure for an independent and professional police force will have to come from society.

The first demand for a civil society campaign for a democratic and effective police force must be for a reversal of the disastrous militarisation of the police.

We should immediately revert to a civilian model of policing.

It is also essential that the oversight mechanisms that monitor policing be granted genuine independence and sufficient resources to do their work.

And a very serious attempt needs to be made to raise the education levels of recruits to the force and to offer them world-class training in modern policing techniques.

We should never forget that policing is a difficult, dangerous and highly stressful job and that we all owe a huge debt to those men and women in the force who carry out their duties with courage and honour.

But, having said that, policing in South Africa is in an abysmal state. When many people fear the police as much as any criminal, things really are in a mess.

Policing will always be contentious and there will always be problems. But this doesn’t mean that real reforms can’t be made towards developing a professional and non-political police force. There are a number of examples of countries where this has been achieved.

One such example is the UK. In the 1970s and early 80s the police force was violent, racist and, along with racist stop-and-search practices that targeted black youth, it was also willing to manufacture false evidence against Irish men.

But after the Brixton Riots of 1981, riots that were largely a response to racist policing, the state took stock of the situation and made serious reforms.

More graduates were employed as police officers, there was an aggressive affirmative action programme in the police force, oversight mechanisms were strengthened and police were given much better training.

The British police force is not without its problems today. But the point is that there was a vast improvement and, with the right political commitment, we could achieve the same here.

It is up to us, as society, to create the pressure on the government that will generate the political commitment that is required to solve our policing crisis and, thereby, the related crisis of violent crime.

* Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. He promotes #ReadingRevolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside, Durban.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.