Police Minister Bheki Cele releases crime statistics of the first quarter of 2021/2022 financial year. Picture: Siyabulela Duda
Police Minister Bheki Cele releases crime statistics of the first quarter of 2021/2022 financial year. Picture: Siyabulela Duda

If only the rest of the government had the can-do attitude of its most prolific department, the ministry of silly excuses, maybe the country wouldn’t be in such a precarious position right now. (Think of it like Monty Python’s ministry of silly walks, but with less coherence and dignity.)

Take the creative, if misleading, excuse trotted out by police commissioner Khehla Sitole for the woeful crime statistics released on Friday. 

The numbers, by any stretch, were a debacle: 5,760 people were murdered in the three months from April to June (or 65 people a day, 6.7% up on the same period in 2019); 10,006 were raped (111 a day, up 2.8% on 2019); hijackings grew by 13.1% compared with 2019; and robberies at homes rose 2.5%.

Even SA’s deadbeat police minister, Bheki Cele, admitted it was “dismal”.

But Sitole’s explanation was such a masterstroke of deflection that it’s almost a surprise he didn’t throw in the words “vaccine apartheid” for the sake of completeness.

“The reality is that the population has outgrown the policing resources, and further to that, the geographical spatial spread has also outgrown our policing infrastructure,” he said.

In other words, Sitole reckons we can’t control the crime numbers because there aren’t enough police.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up.

There are much bigger problems in the police than not enough resources, says Gareth Newham, the head of the Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) justice and violence prevention programme.

“The police don’t have to police all 60-million people in SA. They have to identify those networks that are involved in violent [and] organised crime … and the precincts where violent levels are very high; and they have to use intelligence to identify the networks and deploy their resources strategically,” he told John Perlman on radio 702 on Friday.

As Newham put it, if you put more money into a dysfunctional system, you won’t necessarily get a better outcome. “You need to fix the system, and we’ll then be able to see if we’re getting bang for our buck,” he said.

So while the numbers of police personnel have dropped — from about 199,345 in 2012 to 187,358 people by last year — that’s not the reason crime is out of control. 

Rather, it’s about shoddy management, something that shouldn’t be news to anyone who witnessed the police “handling” last month’s unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The prodigal cops

Despite the picture painted by Sitole, it’s not as if the police aren’t getting enough money — the problem is how this money is being spent.

An analysis of the police’s performance between 2011/2012 and 2019/2020 released last month by the ISS shows that over those nine years the police budget grew 65%, from R58.5bn to R96.8bn. So there was far more money, even as police numbers dropped.

What happened was a mirror of what has happened in many other parts of the public service: the police management used this cash to dramatically hike salaries for those who remained.

Why, you ask? 

The ISS explains, the reason is “the Safety and Security Sector Bargaining Council agreement that noncommissioned officers receive promotions every four years regardless of performance. For example, in 2018 and 2019 over 42,000 personnel were promoted, which added an annual R1.2bn to the salary bill without improvements in activities or performance”.

Actually, forget improvement — police performance has gone rapidly backwards in that time.

Take murder. The number of murders increased by 37%, from 15,552 to 21,325, between 2012 and 2020. And the detection rate for murder (crimes reported that are solved) fell from 31.1% to 19.3% in that time.

This wasn’t a coincidence. The detection rate for robberies fell from 22.2% to 16.9%, and for contact crimes it went from 60.7% to 49.1%.

This sketches a portrait of a police department just not up to the job, which raises some serious questions about the quality of oversight of investigations.

While the number of arrests a year has grown —  to 1.1-million in 2019 from 777,777 in 2012 —  the fact is that the number of cases finalised in courts with a verdict fell by 27% to just 231,725. So, more people are being cuffed, but the investigations are so sub-par that only one in four cases is actually being decided in court.

Clearly, the 65% boost in money going into the police hasn’t done a thing, precisely because the police are managed so badly that it almost makes the eNatis driver’s licence fiasco seem like a well-oiled machine, rather than the merry-go-round of corruption it really is.

This, again, exposes the paucity in planning and strategic thinking in the ministry led by Cele, whose great intellectual response to last month’s unrest was to get his officers to storm into shacks and demand receipts.

Three weeks ago, Cele said the crime stats were used as “propaganda” to chase away tourists. Cele said we should “guard against being run over” by “economic syndicates for investment and tourism”, who claim crime is so bad.

But as the IFP’s Zandile Majozi pointed out, no matter how Cele spins it, the fact is that these numbers “reflect an SAPS management in complete disarray, with police officers executing orders that had no real impact on the daily lives of our people”.

How is it that President Cyril Ramaphosa looked at his whiteboard, when he was shuffling his chess figures around a few weeks ago, and figured that Cele deserved to hold onto his position?

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