The new Minister of Police, Nkosinathi Nhleko.

He has inherited a mess, but Nkosinathi Nhleko plans to transform SAPS and achieve more effective policing, says Peter Gastrow.

Pretoria - In our new police minister we seem to have someone who is prepared to pause for a moment to fundamentally reassess policing in South Africa. This is the interpretation I would like to place on some of Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko’s comments at a conference last month.

He spoke about the need for the “SAPS to change its approach to policing”, and to “professionalise, integrate, and demilitarise the service”.

He wants to shift the focus from “force” to “service” and seems to favour wide consultations in the process of transforming the police. We did not hear this from his predecessors. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Let’s hope it does not turn out to be empty words without any real intention to promote change.

For the sake of effective policing and greater safety and stability in the country, the minister’s pronouncements should be taken at face value. Policing has had such poor political and operational leadership during the past decade that even tentatively positive pronouncements should be grasped and welcomed.

The new minister has inherited a mess. Neither Meyer Kahn (the private sector superman) nor Jackie Selebi (the organised crime connection), nor Bheki Cele (who departed in disgrace), nor the current National Commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has been able to turn the SAPS supertanker around. Matters for the SAPS have gone from bad to worse and the palpable erosion of public trust in, and criticism of, the police now spans political, ethnic, racial and class divisions in the country.

About 83 percent of South Africans believe the police to be corrupt. Scandal upon scandal within its ranks has fuelled concerns about a “Mdlulification” of the police. It is therefore not a moment too soon for the minister to take a critical and in-depth look at policing.

It would be wrong, however, to use the crises within the police as the sole reason for a fundamental review of that department. There are other sound reasons why the government should initiate a fundamental reassessment of policing in the country. Twenty years after the complex 1994 amalgamation of 11 police forces into one police service – and after the cumbersome transformation from a number of reactive police forces that were used to keep apartheid in place – any government would be more than justified in calling for a fundamental re-look at policing.

The minister made his comments at a time when he was still unburdened by any baggage that ministers often accumulate with time in such a complex post. He does not yet find himself in a corner from where he has to hit out and defensively fight off public criticism.


But the way forward for fundamental reform will be filled with challenges. Attempts to bluff with rhetoric or a focus on internal changes through management restructuring and internal processes only will not achieve much.

There needs to be transparency and public involvement. The minister’s intention to consult unions, academics and researchers is to be welcomed but it falls short of what will be required to address and defuse public mistrust.

Police reforms aimed at achieving closer public-police co-operation and at improving the service they render should involve broad public participation and show that the government has confidence in its citizens.

Political will is another crucial factor. The minister could embark on a thorough and well-designed change process but his efforts could be in vain if the cabinet and president lack the political will to provide full backing or fail to properly implement recommendations that may emerge from the process.

Kenya has some lessons for South Africa. When in 2009 the Kenyan government appointed a “National Task Force on Police Reform” to undertake a fundamental review of policing following the 2007 post-election violence there, expectations were high that change would follow and that public trust in the police would be restored. Only 24 percent of Kenyans trusted the police at that stage.

In an open process, the National Task Force criss-crossed Kenya to receive public inputs. A comprehensive report with numerous recommendations followed, all of which the Kenyan government appeared to support. But the expectation of improved policing were soon frustrated when it became clear that the government lacked the political will to follow through.

The consequences are evident in Kenya today. Amid the spiralling violence and crime in that country, the past three weeks have witnessed growing calls from across the political spectrum for the police chief and others to be sacked and for fundamental change in the police to take place.

If President Zuma intends to keep a tight grip on the political heads of the security establishment, including the police, to provide him with some form of protection from the criminal justice system – now and beyond his term of office – then irrespective of Nhleko’s determination, not much in the form of substantial new reform initiatives can be expected to emanate from his office.

There are very few South Africans who do not wish for improved policing. If Nhleko is serious about addressing fundamental change, he should receive backing from across the political and societal spectrum. He also owes it to the many police officers who are trying their best to provide a professional service under difficult circumstances.

* Peter Gastrow is a former special adviser to the Minister for Safety and Security (1994-98) and served as vice-chairman of the Kenyan National Task Force on Police Reform in 2009. He is special adviser to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.

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

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