In the last few months there have been a number of worrying media reports in South Africa alleging incidents of nepotism or favouritism in both the South African Police Service (SAPS) and metropolitan police services. These include allegations of questionable promotions where particular individuals have jumped a number of ranks apparently due to their connections to senior officers. Other reports allege incidents where people have been appointed to senior posts without having the necessary qualifications, experience and skills and despite the availability of much better qualified candidates. If these allegations are true they point to incidents of nepotism and favouritism that pose serious risks and dangers to the effective functioning of our police agencies.
The word nepotism comes from the Latin word “nephos” which literally means “nephew” and emerged in the Middle Ages when some popes and bishops in the Catholic Church, who, because of their vows, had no children of their own, gave their nephews preferential treatment when appointments were made to the cardinalate. Because of this abuse and the resulting unfair treatment of candidates more deserving of appointment, the Catholic Church formally abolished this practice towards the end of the 17th century. Like nepotism, favouritism refers to individuals being appointed to positions as a result of their personal relationships with those who are able to influence the appointment, rather than considerations of merit.
Nevertheless, in the 21st century nepotism and favouritism is still alive and well. It is found all over the world in the public and private spheres. Incidents in policing agencies are certainly not unique to South Africa. Examples of these practices are also found in some of the most prominent police agencies in the world such as the renowned Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) more popularly known as “the Mounties”. According to an article in the Canwest News Service of 28 November 2006, the Auditor General in that year found evidence of nepotism along with inappropriate contracting and wasteful spending in the administration of the RCMP`s pension and insurance plans. This case resulted in discontent within the RCMP and some officers openly called for the resignation of the Commissioner. The Auditor general subsequently recommended a policy for independent external investigations of the activities of the RCMP.
In a more recent example, the London Sunday Times reported during March 2010 that the two most senior officers in the North Yorkshire Police Service were under investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission for alleged nepotism. In May 2010, Haaretz.com reported on an incident in Israel where the State Comptroller in its annual report was highly critical of the Commissioner of Police over the promotion of his brother. The report further reflected that the conduct of the Commissioner was cause for serious discontent in the Israeli police. There are many more examples of nepotism in police agencies across the world, but the implications of this practice is summed up well in an article by Kayhan Mutlu, titled `Problems of nepotism and favouritism in the police organization in Turkey`, published in the International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, in 2000:
It is clear that any injustice in promotions will not only effect the individual officer in lowering morale and efficiency, but also cause negative feelings towards the leaders in the police ... One vital implication of unfair application of the rules for promotions is maintaining the serious inequalities created by advancing those who do not really deserve to be promoted and holding back the ones who deserve it on merit. This, no doubt, reduces the overall efficiency of the organization.
The recent media reports alleging irregularities in police promotions and appointments in South Africa are particularly worrying given the public discontentment with our police. The 2007 National Victims of Crime Survey found that just over half the population did not think that the police were doing a good job in their areas. The 2008 Afrobarometre Survey found that 54% of citizens did not trust the police at all or only a little bit. The reports that there are irregularities in police appointments will further damage public perceptions of our policing agencies.
Since 2009 there have been laudable initiatives by the Minister of Police and the National Commissioner of Police to address weaknesses that exist in the SAPS. One of the key challenges relates to the calibre of police managers in the SAPS. In September this year, the SAPS National Commissioner, General Bheki Cele told Parliament`s Portfolio Committee on Police that in its quest to rapidly increase personnel numbers over the last nine years, the SAPS `sacrificed quality for quantity` and that the resulting problems were exacerbated by poor training and discipline.
Earlier this year, the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthetwa, in a budget speech before parliament implicitly referred to problems with SAPS recruitment and appointment processes when he called for a `new kind of police officer`. In an interview for the December issue of the SA Crime Quarterly published by the ISS, he explained that this kind of police officer must serve as an example to our society and be an upright person. In order to find recruits who would meet these high ideals, the National Civilian Secretariat of the Police is reviewing the recruitment practices and the training programme of the SAPS.
While these statements from our political and police leadership about improving the calibre of police officials are to be welcomed, it is of little use to clean up recruitment at the point of entry when at a more senior level the process of appointment and promotion is clouded in controversy and suspicion. If the police have any hope of restoring discipline and efficiency in the organisation, they will have to set the correct example starting at the top of the organisation. Police officials the world over do not have respect for, and find it demoralising to have to show deference to senior officers who they believe have been undeservedly promoted. This situation results in a number of other negative consequences for the police organisation. Without respect discipline breaks down, and without discipline basic command and control suffers. Police officials who are better qualified for promotion or appointment will have feelings of discontent that may not only impact on their performance, but may also filter through to the rest of the staff. In the end morale suffers and this has a negative impact on the performance of the organisation in general.
The Minister and the National Commissioner have promised us a new kind of police officer that will be disciplined, efficient and effective, and there are signs of steps being taken to achieve this ideal. However, they will have to demonstrate their commitment to this ideal by showing that they take concerns about senior appointments and promotions in the police very seriously. Every effort must be made to ensure that the appointment and promotion processes are open and transparent. Importantly, an independent body must immediately investigate all allegations of unfairness related to senior level police appointments. Where allegations are found to be true, timely and appropriate action must be taken by top leadership to rectify the situation. Policing in South Africa can only improve if police leaders and managers are men and women of integrity who possess the necessary skills and experience to solve the challenges currently facing the organisation.
Written by: Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria