Members of the South African Police Service have lost an average of four firearms a day and this has compromised the safety and security and has increased people’s vulnerability at the hands of criminals.
According to Gun Free SA, 29 600 firearms were lost and stolen from police stations in the period between 2001/2022 and 2020/2021.
Gun Free SA director Adele Kirsten said there was a lot that was needed to protect the police and also hold them responsible for losing a firearm as guns in the hands of criminals are a threat to society.
“Most police officers are killed when they are off-duty (e.g. last year 31 members were killed on duty and 50 off-duty). In many cases when police officers are killed (whether on or off duty) their firearms are stolen. The Firearms Control Act states that SAPS employees must not take their firearms home with them when they go off duty unless they have specific permission, but this isn’t being implemented and police officers do take their firearms home with them, which puts them at increased risk of being targeted for their guns,” she said.
Kirsten added that it was vital that police officers are prosecuted when they negligently lose firearms to stop the culture of impunity.
“To also note that proposed amendments to the Firearms Control Act (a draft was published last year) aim to tighten up controls over police firearms e.g. by making station commanders more responsible for firearms under their control and putting in place systems so that Parliament has more power to oversee loss and theft of state firearms.”
Between 2020/2021, 566 firearms were lost and stolen from police.
In August last year, three men escaped with R5 rifles, two pump action shotguns, 9mm pistols, ammunition and magazines.
In November 2021, a group of armed men stormed Malamulele Police Station in Limpopo and held officers at gunpoint before fleeing with R5 rifles, 9mm pistols, shotguns and ammunition. Ten suspects linked with the robbery have been arrested and appeared at the Malamulele Magistrate’s Court. The case has been postponed to February 2, for further investigations.
Last year it was also revealed that 158 firearms had been stolen from Norwood Police Station’s evidence room in Johannesburg. The firearms which were stolen include R5s, R1s and AK-47s.
Station commander Phetole Mahasha resigned from the police station on January 14, following the disappearance of the firearms at the police station, causing the chairperson of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, to call for immediate action.
Institute for Security Studies policing researcher Dr Johan Burger said this kind of criminal and sometimes negligent control over firearms handed in by the public for safekeeping or for use as evidence in criminal cases, further exposes innocent members of the public to criminal attacks.
“What is needed is the recruitment of a much higher calibre of persons into the police, an urgent review of the reasons why these incidents happen (e.g. poor command and control, absence of accountability, etc). Also, the urgent implementation of recommendations such as in the NAT Development Plan and the report by the panel of experts to drastically reform the police.”
He said the implementation should include recruitment and training, and should focus on ensuring the appointment of the police leadership on a competitive basis and in an open and transparent process.
“And finally, a complete overhaul of the police’s disciplinary process to ensure accountability and the dismissal of officials that are guilty of criminal acts of serious misconduct.”
Burger said this is the reason there is so much violence in the country and stolen firearms from the police aggravate the situation.
“But there are a number of other reasons as well, e.g. the general absence of the criminal justice system as credible deterrent, the belief by offenders that they stand a good chance of evading detection, prosecution and conviction. There is also the added realities of high levels of unemployment and poverty and the criminal potential and opportunities that these conditions present,” said Burger.
Anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee said the situation shows that the necessary measures were not in place to secure the stolen firearms.
“It’s a big worry. Those responses should be charged criminally. We know that these firearms often end up in the hands of criminals. No wonder we have so much violent crime. Lives are being lost because of this negligence. We need immediate, urgent interventions and we need accountability,” he said.
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, Wits School of Governance associate professor, said the safety and security of the citizens was compromised by the scourge of illegal and stolen firearms.
“Stolen and illegal firearms are like oxygen for many criminal syndicates and individuals with evil intent, and it fuels the widespread culture of violence. It is unfortunate that for many ordinary citizens who resist this culture of violence, their daily lives are impacted directly by violence, particularly by those who use firearms to deprive them of their belongings and lives,” said Van Nieuwkerk.
She said this contributed directly to the deepening and widening of violent criminal behaviour, including organised crime, political violence, taxi wars and individual behaviour such as gender-based violence (GBV).
“The country needs more than improved police training. National security - protecting our people, the economy and the state - is the most important priority of the government right now. To provide that, it needs to ensure the entire security sector functions effectively and efficiently. It means making the military, intelligence, justice, police and Home Affairs fit for purpose, ensuring operational co-ordination via an integrated decision-making structure, and ensuring democratic oversight via Parliament and other oversight bodies. Critically, without strategic leadership, this will not happen and the country will continue to experience deeper and wider levels of violent crime,” explain Burger.
University of Free State Public Law Professor Neels Swanepoel said proper systems and measures for the proper protection of firearms in police custody need to be implemented.
“Of course the community are the direct victims of theft of firearms from police stations because these firearms are obtained for no other reason than to commit crimes. That these firearms are obtained from police stations, speaks volumes of the general lawlessness in South Africa that now in some instances as this are aided and abetted by the police,” said Swanepoel who added that there can be little doubt that these thefts occur as a result of lack of will by some members of the police force to take their work seriously.
She added: “The rampant violence in SA may be ascribed to various and complex reasons. The unlawful or negligent facilitation of firearms by the police for unlicensed individuals and groups logically perpetuates this cycle. It further perpetuates the violation of the rule of law with impunity including the credibility of the people who are supposed to protect the public,” Swanepoel said.
Asked if the community was safe under this situation and whether this is the reason the country is experiencing so much violence, Minister of Police Bheki Cele spokesperson Lirandzu Themba did not respond. SAPS spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo referred questions to his colleague Mathapelo Peters who also did not respond.