The South African Police Service (SAPS) is the country’s national police force, and consists of 1116 police stations dispersed throughout South Africa. SAPS is tasked with everything from providing case numbers for insurance purposes to protecting the houses for sale in Rustenburg.
The force is segmented into nine provincial areas, each having a Provincial Commissioner that reports directly to the National Commissioner.
Being a policeman is no holiday at a luxury scuba diving lodge: the role of the South African Police Service is clearly described in the much-lauded Constitution of South Africa. Essentially, SAPS is tasked with: the prevention, combatting and investigation of criminal activity; maintaining public order; protecting and securing the personal safety and property of all persons in the country; upholding and enforcing the law; helping in the creation of a peaceful and safe environment; and preventing events or activities that may threaten the security of any community. SAPS, as a single state entity, is therefore in charge of the efforts to prevent and respond to crime.
In their efforts to protect society, many police officers have died while on duty: from 1 April 2009 to 1 April 2010, a recorded 107 police officers lost their lives. The garden area of the Union Buildings in Pretoria has a Monument erected in honour of the many police officers who have lost lives protecting public safety.
During Apartheid, the South African Police (SAP) became a symbol of state repression and state violence as they were often used to quell the unrest that brooded in the disempowered townships. Violence enacted against the state (terrorism) was also often dealt with by police units trained to extract intelligence through torture. Political assassinations have also been linked to police activities. An example of extraordinary powers being granted to the police through legislation was the Police Amendment Act (70) of 1965 which allowed officers to search, without warrant, any vehicle/receptacle/person within 1.6km of any border. By 1983 this power was extended to anywhere in the country. This, combined with what was perceived as unnecessary brutality in daily actions, created an extremely negative police image within the country as well as outside our borders.
After Apartheid ended, the police force was one of the state institutions that most needed addressing in terms of both, practices and public image. Fortunately, in contemporary South Africa, much of the oppression associated with the police has receded into the past; unfortunately, however, new points of criticism have emerged. The crime rate immediately following the first democratic elections sky-rocketed, and the police service was often unable (and in many ways is still unable) to deal with the sheer volume of criminal activity.
The “militarisation” of the police service in 2010 (the changing of rank names and the receiving of greater permission to use deadly force) received sharp criticism from many South Africans and international commentators alike. Militaristic police forces, like the Apartheid police, are seen as an apparatus by which oppressive political regimes maintain control over rebellious citizens.
The scandals surrounding both Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele have further tarnished the image of the police force in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Although SAPS (and we, the South African public) are blessed to have many inspirational individuals in uniform, there are too many individuals abusing their authority – giving rise to the need for decisive and effective accountability controls.