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SA has landed itself in a tight spot, with crime having increased at the same time as the state’s capacity to deal with it has declined. The economic impact is huge, with the latest estimate by the World Bank pegging it at 10% of economic output as measured by GDP. 

These costs, which include higher insurance premiums, are a burden on an economy that already faces other rising operating costs, such as those relating to the energy shortage and logistical failures. “Crime is prevalent in many forms in SA, but violent offences are a particular concern,” the World Bank said in its 2023 annual report on the SA economy. 

The prevalence of crime has come at a time when police capacity, both in numbers and capability, has declined. Analysing the effect of budget cuts on three areas of public spending, the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (University of the Witwatersrand) said last October that the decline in police numbers “has eroded police capacity and public trust”. 

The remaining police members, the centre said, were also operating with declining resources for complementary inputs such as motor vehicles, travel and subsistence allowances. Quoting another study, the centre noted that while budget cutbacks had affected police capacity, the decline in police performance had been far deeper than the drop in police headcount would justify. 

“Failures of leadership, an absence of policy direction, widespread political patronage at all levels and outright corruption and criminality have hollowed out the criminal justice system,” the centre said. 

The weakening of police capacity was brought into sharper focus earlier this week by KwaZulu-Natal police commissioner Lt-Gen Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. He reportedly told the media that members of the elite police unit that handles crimes that require specialised skills were “resigning (en masse)”, headed for private security firms. He said he had raised the issue with police leadership in Pretoria. 

These resignations aren’t surprising given some of the silly policy decisions that have been made, such as delinking promotions from performance appraisals. Divorcing performance from rewards (such as promotions) encourages cronyism and makes the police force a fertile ground for corruption. The latter is made possible because police bosses and politicians can promote into positions of authority the least capable, who return the favour by facilitating corruption on behalf of their bosses.

Such a system benefits poor performers and disadvantages those with expertise, who in turn seek greener pastures outside the police force. This hollowing out has happened as crime, especially organised crime, has increased, encroaching even on the police services.

“The perception is that crime, particularly organised crime, is worsening,” the World Bank said, noting SA’s ranking of seventh out of 193 countries on the 2023 Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s annual index. We were 19th out of 193 in 2021. 

Organised crime thrives where the police service has weak, or no, crime intelligence gathering capabilities. And the Centre for Inequality Studies said in 2022 that crime intelligence, which accounts for 5% of total police headcount, had been hit hard by “the fundamental erosion of expert capacity”.

According to the bank, organised crime enables corruption within the police and facilitates “a range of other crimes”. Corruption means theft of limited police resources, doubling the detrimental effect of budget cuts.

As the World Bank pointed out, if SA is to reduce crime levels it must have capacity to identify and arrest criminals — the higher the risk of being caught the less attractive crime becomes. “It also contributes to a virtuous circle: as the police become more effective, trust in policing improves and with growing support from the community they become even more effective at controlling other types of crime.” 

The bank recommends institutional reforms, including of police leadership, analytical and strategic capabilities, as well as professionalisation of the police. In addition, drawing from the Southern Centre’s analysis, it’s not only police leadership that must be addressed. Political patronage must be rooted out of the police force. So must the organised crime networks that have become embedded in the police. So too must police members who commit crimes. 

But none of all this will work if the government fails to address the working environment. For example, a return to a human resource system where pay increases and promotions are linked to performance appraisals would aid professionalisation of the police service.

Professionalisation might in turn make police work attractive to new and better educated recruits, especially for the more technical roles within the service. 

• Sikhakhane, a former spokesperson for the finance minister, National Treasury and SA Reserve Bank, is editor of The Conversation Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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