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Jun 10, 2010 | Commentary

Despite being heralded as one of the developing world’s rising stars, it is no secret that South Africa has struggled with crime since the fall of the apartheid regime.  As of yet, attempts to resolve the crime problem have been largely ineffective, and a growing gap between communities and the police has emerged.  A new paper by the Global Consortium on Security Transformation, Policing and Community in South Africa, developed in consultation with South African police and community groups, seeks to identify the causes of this gap and develop solutions for moving forward with police reform in South Africa.

Broadly defined, there are two approaches to policing, the prevention approach and the enforcement approach.  Prevention identifies crime as being caused by socio-economic factors, suggesting that rectifying these is the best approach to addressing crime. Enforcement approaches attempt to reduce crime by combatting crime directly through arrests and convictions.  In South Africa, both of these approaches have failed when applied in their absolute forms. The authors contend that only by mixing policing approaches in a fashion tailored to local communities can crime rates be reduced, and the gap between police and community be bridged.

Immediately after the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, one of the first aims was to transform the security apparatus from a force of oppression to a public safety service along the lines of wealthy international donor states.  Falling in line with the prevention approach, there was recognition of the social causes of crime, and an attempt to integrate the criminal justice services.  However, poor implementation and coordination outweighed the political commitment to this utopian view of crime prevention.  While crime was viewed as a broad issue, the burden of tackling this issue fell largely on the police, who were forced to take on a broad variety of roles such as educators, social workers and health providers, which interfered with their core mandates.  The disconnect between the conception of crime as a socioeconomic issue and the lack of practical implementation along these lines doomed this approach to failure, and in 1999 the police forces were reformed.  The new approach adhered to the enforcement approach, focusing on short term solutions as part of a “war on crime.” This new approach focused resources on areas experiencing high crime, as well as organized crime, and was accompanied by substantial increases in funding for more police officers and more prisons.  However, crime remained high, even as the state continued to expand enforcement by making more arrests, building more prisons, and lengthening sentences.

The enforcement approach is criticized for diverting attention away from the failing school system and the high incidence of “broken homes,”  which have led to high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and truancy for much of South Africa’s poor youth.  Children are often normalized to violence and victimized at an early age—which is demonstrated to contribute to violent activity later in life—then targeted only after they become offenders, contributing to distrust of the police and a general sense of disempowerment.   High rates of teen pregnancies, substance abuse, and incarcerated fathers in South Africa perpetuate the socioeconomic conditions contributing to crime. The authors argue that there needs to be a sustained investment in children.  If the needs of youth (education, supervision, nurture) are ignored then there is a low chance that they can be reformed by the justice system later on in life.

In consultation with South African communities, the authors discovered a general perception of insecurity and a lack of employment opportunities.  There was also an expressed distrust of the police due in large part to perceived complicity with the operators of illegal alcohol dispensers (Shebeens).  However, communities were willing to believe that better police-community relationships could make a difference, and simply wanted a trustworthy police force with a low need for the security and justice apparatus.

The authors of the paper propose a reversal in the traditional top-down strategies of policing in light of the fact that crime is predominately experienced at a local level.  Local governments would be empowered to deliver goods and services tailored to the needs of their community, while provincial governments would deliver resources and share best practices among local governments.  Finally, the national government would set broad goals, and provide political leadership and funding.  The authors also make the following recommendations:

  • Develop better police-community partnerships at the local level;
  • Focus on achievable goals;
  • Limit police mandates, and improve the relationships between police and other community service providers;
  • Provide better data reporting to the public and increase police transparency; and
  • Focus arrests tailored to the needs of the community (for example, drug and alcohol related arrests)

These are long-term goals, with no sure chance of success, and there is always the temptation to implement short term solutions and the politically beneficial “tough on crime” approach.  Many of these proposals would also require increased funding, in order to allow police to focus on their core mandates. In many ways, South Africa has come full circle in its approach to policing, yet one can only hope they have learned from past failures, and will not be doomed to repeat them.