Policing and democracy in Khayelitsha

22 September 2014

Enkanini Khayelitsha Light changing over Enkanini, on the far south-east side of Khayelitsha. Photo by David Harrison.

The Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry recently handed over its groundbreaking report on policing and community-police relations in one of South Africa's largest and fastest-growing townships. What are its findings and implications?

In late August 2014, Justice Kate O'Regan and Advocate Vusumzi Pikoli officially handed over the voluminous final report of the Commission of Inquiry into policing and community-police relations in Khayelitsha to senior SAPS officials and the political leadership of the Western Cape province. The venue for the handover was Lookout Hill community hall, which was packed to the rafters with Khayelitsha residents, community activists and journalists.

There was a sense of excitement and celebration in the air, as this was a report from the first post-apartheid commission of inquiry of its kind, which not only has important implications for policing in South Africa, but also for the manner in which provincial governments could hold national government to account. In addition to this, the job of the commission had teetered on the edge of oblivion before the work had even begun. Intense party-political skirmishes and legal wrangling over its lawfulness besieged it for almost a year. The Minister of Police even took the matter to the Constitutional Court in an attempt to invalidate the commission.

Despite these challenges, the commission undertook its work fastidiously and professionally in order to produce its report. It heard the evidence of 87 witnesses; received statements from 170 complainants; called on 40 experts; undertook site visits; and scrutinised a bewildering array of documents from various sources. It drew on the report of the SAPS's own task team, together with standing orders, protocols and national instructions promulgated and issued by SAPS, which were used at times by the commission as a benchmark against which to consider the actual record of the three police stations under review.

A thorough investigation

While making the important point that “SAPS cannot on its own prevent crime" (page 326), the commission undertook an exceptionally thorough investigation of what SAPS – or any police service in a democracy – can and should be expected to do in its daily operations. In other words, what does it, would it and should it mean for SAPS to provide a thoroughly professional service, specifically in the challenging conditions of Khayelitsha?

It is noteworthy that the report, while mercilessly illuminating muddled or self-serving arguments, and at times expressing dismay at what is revealed, does not descend to personal blaming or political point-scoring. It observes deficiencies, but looks for solutions, also noting that “there are members of SAPS who perform their duties daily in difficult circumstances in Khayelitsha" (page 393).

The commission found that the greater Khayelitsha area has some of the highest rates of violent crime in South Africa, including murder and aggravated robbery. However, alarmingly, most of the police stations in Khayelitsha have the lowest police-to-population ratio in the province. This allocation of police resources was based on the SAPS national Theoretical Human Resources Requirement (THRR), which is currently not in the public domain. The commission suggested that there may be a systemic bias within the THRR against poorer areas; hence the policing problems experienced by the residents of Khayelitsha may not be unique.

In the context of under-resourced police stations, the commission indicated that the SAPS in Khayelitsha did not generally appear to conduct regular patrols of informal neighbourhoods; answer telephones reliably; or conduct adequate detective work, with only an estimated 1% of cases resulting in conviction. With regard to this last point, the commission highlighted the untenable position of most detectives in the area, each of whom is responsible for close to 200 dockets at any given time. The testimony of Brigadier Dladla from SAPS was used to emphasise this point: “You know in the movies – you see a team of detectives descending [on] a crime scene attending to a docket; but here in Khayelitsha, you have a team of dockets descending on a detective."

The commission also pointed to serious and persistent management problems and inefficiencies within SAPS, with there being no strategic management plan to target these inefficiencies. Of great concern, given the high levels of violence against women and children in Khayelitsha, was that the commission deemed the responsible unit (the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit) to be dysfunctional.

The commission also determined that there had been a breakdown in relations between Khayelitsha residents and the SAPS members in the area, for a variety of reasons. These included a widespread perception that the police were disrespectful to members of the public, were generally unresponsive to calls for assistance, and undertook shoddy detective work; that the community policing forums were ineffective; and that complaints against SAPS members rarely resulted in disciplinary action. Nonetheless, the commission concluded that good relations had the potential to be restored, but required concerted efforts from all parties.

The report's significance

This report is one of the most important documents on policing and public safety in South Africa to have been published in the course of the last twenty years. It is also a landmark in the development of our constitutional democracy, and of direct interest to any nation-state that is grappling with the challenges of balancing unity and diversity, or centralism and regionalism.

Moreover, both through explicit argument and through the force of its own example, the report makes a brilliant case for the importance of independent oversight of the operations of state agencies:

“The Constitution does not provide oversight of state agencies to make difficulties for those state agencies. Rather it provides oversight in order to strengthen and improve state agencies by identifying problems and failings within the state agencies that have not been noticed or addressed." (page 434)

The aim of such an approach is “to warn those in government of the need for steps to be taken to address the problem before all is lost" (page 55). While the particular material for this enquiry is the operations of three police stations in Khayelitsha and their relations with the community, the point is widely applicable and extremely well-timed – one thinks, for example, of school textbooks, pharmaceutical supplies to clinics, teachers' capacity to teach mathematics, and the maintenance of national roads.

Recommendations for SAPS

The commission makes a series of recommendations that constitute a clearly articulated and attainable set of benchmarks for professional policing, which – if taken seriously – will transform the experience of safety and security of the people of Khayelitsha. Below are a select number of summarised recommendations from the report:

  • Each police station should adopt a community policing commitment to facilitate improved community-SAPS relations.
  • An oversight and monitoring team should be instituted to ensure that inefficiencies are sufficiently dealt with.
  • A strategic review of detective services in Khayelitsha should be undertaken, and backlog teams should be allocated to Khayelitsha police stations.
  • The Theoretical Human Resources Requirement should be reviewed, and then made publicly available.
  • A memorandum of understanding should be created between the Western Cape Government and SAPS to facilitate the former's constitutional mandate to monitor police conduct and oversee police efficiency and effectiveness.

Many of the recommendations are relatively simple and commonsensible matters, familiar to any person who has had dealings with the police. However, these observations are given massive weight by the comprehensive, systematic and transparent way in which the detailed evidence has been collated and analysed, and the conclusions have been drawn.

A ‘whole of society' solution

However, SAPS cannot do it alone, and should not be expected to. One of the many strengths of this report is the way in which it has identified the particular and unique role of SAPS and what can and cannot reasonably be expected of it, while pointing to the essential complementary roles of civil society and the different levels of the state.

The commission lays down a sober and constructive challenge to SAPS, the national government, the Western Cape Government (who established the commission, and to whom the report is addressed), the City of Cape Town, the people of Khayelitsha, and all those who have at heart the aims and values that were articulated at the birth of our democracy.

The commission's report is a welcome and timely assertion of the enduring strength of those values, and an exemplary prescription of how those values may be embodied in practice. The main challenge that now lies ahead is the practical implementation of the recommendations; but also, keeping the momentum and spirit of the commission alive, using this opportunity to contemplate the state of democratic policing in a national context.

As a starting point, the Centre of Criminology and the Safety and Violence Initiative will be hosting a panel discussion towards the end of the year involving the commission members, in order to provide an opportunity to reflect on the commission, its findings and its recommendations.

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