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Can the high level of police brutality, corruption and misconduct in South Africa be blamed on poor recruitment processes? The Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, admitted to Parliament’s Police Portfolio Committee on 24 March 2013 that the recruitment of the right kind of individual into the police service was a ‘major problem’. He added that the problem had for a long time been exacerbated by the extraordinary powers of recruitment officers, which were often abused.
Deputy Minister of Police Maggie Sotyu, speaking at a South African Police Service (SAPS) workshop in Kempton Park on 21 January 2013, was even more outspoken on the problem of corruption during the recruitment process. She said that ‘a key challenge in the recruitment of a credible work force is to uproot corruption within the recruitment process’. Of particular concern to Sotyu was that the recruitment of quality police students was ‘not entirely honest and credible’ because it was ‘besieged with favouritism, nepotism, allegiance and prejudice’.
These statements were made at a time of growing public concern about the quality of policing in South Africa. A number of high-profile incidents of police brutality have served as lightening rods to conduct public anger over widespread police abuse and corruption. Since 2001/02 the SAPS has recruited almost 70 000 new members. As a result of weak recruitment, training and management capacity within the organisation, far too many police officers are more of a threat to, than a protector of, public safety.
Interestingly, the idea of improved recruitment and community participation being key to improving policing was raised over two years ago. In an interview with Dr Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) published in the SA Crime Quarterly of December 2010 ('On the record - Interview with the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa'), Mthethwa responded as follows to a question about his vision of a new type of police officer: ‘We want the kind of police officer that can serve as an example to our society, an upright policeman, and because of that we decided to review how we recruit these police officers. One of the ways of doing this is to move the process of recruitment away from an individual recruitment officer to a broader kind of a forum or formation that will involve other stakeholders representing communities, such as community policing forums [CPFs].’
Similarly, on 2 December 2010, former National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele stated that the process of recruiting trainees would be conducted by a committee instead of individuals. He went on to explain that after the police had selected a potential trainee, the committee would canvas the views of the community, the person's school teachers and religious leader to determine if he or she was a suitable candidate. He added: ‘The potential recruits will be subjected to a raft of screening background checks, including compulsory rigorous vetting to avoid enlisting applicants with pending criminal cases.’
Surprisingly, little has been done to change recruitment since the issue was raised in 2010. According to Mthethwa, his department only decided in January this year that the names of potential recruits would first be published in the media for public comment before they were accepted for training. The thinking, apparently, is to advertise vacant posts within the SAPS at station instead of provincial level. This will be done to allow local communities and groups to comment on potential candidates. It is not clear why the current criteria for recruitment, which already provide for psychometric testing to ensure that new recruits are of ‘sound and sober character’, are not adequate. The Minister seemed to suggest that this was the case by stating that the burden of identifying problematic recruits would rest with communities: ‘Where no adverse comment is received, the department stated that “we [will] take it that this person is accepted by the public as the person to be an officer”.’ This of course assumes that everyone knows who the criminals are.
Moving the authority to decide on the suitability of an applicant away from an individual recruitment officer to a committee may go a long way towards mitigating the corruption that can emerge when one person has too much power. However, the objectivity and credibility of the process will largely depend on the composition, representivity and management of these panels. Little has been said about this in any of the statements on this matter.
Indeed, there are a number of important questions that need to be considered before this approach is put into place. For example, to what extent will it be practically possible to garner public involvement in commenting on individual applicants? We already know from an ISS study in 2002 that CPFs do not adequately represent different communities and that fewer than half (44%) of all respondents in the community surveys indicated that they had ever heard of a CPF.
Probably the most important of these questions relate to the type and extent of the intended changes to the recruitment process and what impact this could have on the problems facing the SAPS. These problems are so many and so varied that much more than a credible recruitment process is needed to professionalise the organisation (for some examples of the problems faced by the SAPS, see ISS Today, ‘How poor leadership undermines the South African Police Service’)
Of course recruitment is important and putting in place a credible process will, in time, benefit the police, but such a process should be integrated into a much wider turn-around strategy for the SAPS. Some elements of such a strategy are already contained in the National Development Plan (NDP) 2030, for example the establishment of a national multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral policing board that would set standards for the recruitment, appointment and promotion of all officials, as well as the appointment of the National Police Commissioner and his or her deputies through a transparent and competitive process based purely on merit.
Arguably, focusing on recruitment at this point in time is too little too late, given that recruitment levels will now decrease substantially as the SAPS looks to reduce its numbers by about 10 000 over the next three years. The focus should rather be on strengthening internal accountability mechanisms for identifying and removing officers who are incompetent or abusing their policing powers.
It is encouraging that the Department of Police is at least talking about the need for change in the SAPS. But it is time that we go beyond talking and start implementing. It is also time that the department starts moving on other critical challenges such as stopping poor leadership appointments, strengthening command and control throughout the organisation, improving training, enforcing discipline and cracking down on corruption. The recommendations contained in the NDP are a good starting point, and should be prioritised as part of an integrated and fully-fledged turn-around strategy for the SAPS.
Written by Johan Burger, Senior Researcher and Mpho Mtshali, Intern, Governance Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria