South Africa’s police are criminally incompetent

Members of the SAPS moving refugees from the UN High Commission in Brooklyn. This comes after they invaded the premises following aourt order by the high court in Pretoria. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Members of the SAPS moving refugees from the UN High Commission in Brooklyn. This comes after they invaded the premises following aourt order by the high court in Pretoria. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 16, 2019


It’s surely no secret that the criminal justice system in South Africa is in a disastrous plight.

Serious crime is booming, convictions are down.

The expectations raised by the appointment of the well-regarded Shamila Batohi to head the National Prosecuting Authority have not been met. As yet, not a single prosecution has taken place for those involved in the brazen looting of the national fiscus.

After all, how difficult can it be? The investigative journalists released voluminous dossiers on corruption, detailing the criminal behaviour of prominent figures in the ANC. They named these people and, despite much blustering, not a single defamation action has been brought.

But Batohi deserves some sympathy. It is unlikely that she could have imagined how dysfunctional the NPA is.

It got a R1.3billion injection in the recent Mid-term Budget, but has been underfunded for at least a decade. After 2015 there was no staff recruitment, leaving 700 vacant prosecutor posts.

This week, we got a further glimpse of the rot. Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya, head of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations, popularly known as the Hawks, said in an interview with News24’s Mandy Wiener that his unit had been “badly crippled by staff shortages and competency challenges” and was operating at less than 50% capacity.

It’s not only at the elite level of the Hawks that law enforcement is in chaos. The SAPS has, under the influence of relentless political interference, steadily decreased in crime-fighting efficiency, even while growing substantially in size, both in payroll and in girth of its notoriously obese officers.

Again, the statistics are dismal. In an answer to questions from DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard in 2013, it was revealed that the police had 1 500 officers with criminal convictions, including serious offences such as murder, kidnapping and assault.

Nothing was done. The SAPS lacked the courage to get rid of the officers concerned and hoped that staff churn would solve the problem. It hasn’t. After further probing by Kohler Barnard this year, SAPS admitted there were now 4000 officers with criminal convictions in the force, of whom 32 were at the highest levels of SAPS management.

With a leadership infiltrated by card-carrying criminals, it should come as no surprise that ordinary cops appear to be uncertain as to which side to take. This week, Mpumalanga Judge President Frans Legodi was sternly critical of police behaviour after applications by two transport companies for urgent court intervention compelling the SAPS to do its job.

The applicants said SAPS officers repeatedly refused to intervene when their trucks were being attacked, by local drivers wanting foreigners banned. The illegal activities included assault, robbery, hijacking, intimidation, malicious damage to property, unlawful detention, the blockage

of public roads and incitement to


The police, said the applicants, just stood by, watching. They were clearly “reluctant or unwilling” to enforce the law, each time refusing to act unless the victims of the crimes obtained a court order directing them to do so.

Legodi said, in his judgment, that the problem raised by these cases was “far from unusual” and the SAPS attitude was “wrong and would encourage lawlessness”.

Legodi said it was not the responsibility of the courts to “prevent, combat and investigate crimes”. Nor was it the function of the courts to “maintain public order, secure the inhabitants and their property. The Constitution gave this power to the police”.

The Judge President asked that his judgment be brought to the attention of the Mpumalanga police commissioner to “consider an inquiry”. But that’s not enough. The problem is far bigger than just two hauliers in one province.

In the past year, about 1300 truck-and-trailer rigs have been attacked, damaged and destroyed, countrywide, at a cost of about R1.3billion. There have been more than 200 deaths and Police Minister Bheki Cele was sufficiently moved to say “it is clear that we are now in crisis”.

That was in July. As with deaths from xenophobic violence, prosecutions are still not happening, never mind convictions.

The crisis continues.

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