The unrest and looting that followed the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court sparked widespread violence and destruction of property, and resulted in the deaths of more than 350 people. Most of the violence took place in two economically important provinces – KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Read more: Why have South Africans been on a looting rampage? Research offers insights
The violence took place in the context of rising levels of crime and unrest related to poor service delivery, and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in poorer households. These were exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdown regulations.
The latest quarterly crime statistics showed that criminal offending has continued to increase. There’s also been a growing sense of insecurity fuelled by a spate of attacks. At the beginning of the year there was an arson attack on parliament which left the building gutted. This was followed by attacks on other buildings of symbolic significance.
In his speech, Ramaphosa emphasised the dire levels of poverty, inequality, and unemployment affecting many South Africans. He suggested these factors combined with the poor quality of intelligence and policing had contributed to the civil unrest in July 2021. Related to this, the ability of the police and the State Security Agency to keep South Africans safe had been compromised by state capture and political interference.
Looking to the future, Ramaphosa indicated that government would pursue a “new consensus” with a view to developing a “comprehensive social compact”. This would involve extensive partnerships with the private sector to tackle the country’s numerous socioeconomic and service delivery challenges.
However, as the July 2021 unrest and looting graphically showed, crime and lawlessness can debilitate and destroy government efforts to facilitate and support economic growth.
Ramaphosa outlined a series of measures that the government would pursue in 2022 to address crime. These included leadership reforms within the security agencies, support for community policing forums and the implementation of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide.
The leadership changes are important, especially within the South African Police Service. The national police commissioner has been under a dark cloud for a number of years. He has shown unwillingness to cooperate with important investigations by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. And police response to the handling of the civil unrest was viewed as lacklustre.
Experts and civil society have for years been calling for leadership changes in the South African Police Service as well as the State Security Agency. The agency is tasked with flagging domestic and foreign threats, potential threats to national stability and the safety of the nation.
The appointment of highly competent, unbiased, and experienced police and intelligence leaders would address some of the key institutional failings. But more would need to be done to address the issue of trust.
A 2021 study by Afrobarometer, the independent pan-African surveys network, indicated that 73% of South Africans trusted the police “a little” or “not at all”. Only 26% trusted the police “somewhat” or “a lot”.
By means of crude comparison a 2021 Organisation for European Economic Cooperation and Development survey of its member countries indicated that on average, 78% of populations trusted the police.
Studies of police reform have emphasised the importance of leadership change as a contributing factor to improving public faith.
A report of the Khayelitsha Commission on Inquiry into poor levels of policing in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township, in 2014 pointed out that such trust was mostly built and sustained at the police station level. It also depended on police behaviour towards residents.
This points to the importance of involving communities. The government has long been aware of the need for cooperation between police and communities in building trust. The South African Police Service Act in fact requires that the police service establish and cooperate with community policing forums in all policing precincts.
The forums were envisaged as representative committees of communities mandated to promote communication and cooperation between the communities and the police. They’d also engage in joint problem-solving between civilians and the police.
They were also meant to facilitate transparency and accountability of the police, and improve delivery of police services.
My research (with other policing experts) has highlighted the important roles that community policing forums play in building and sustaining partnerships between the police and local communities.
The forums were found to be undertaking a variety of positive actions that contributed to preventing crime and improving community safety.
But their role has often been hamstrung. A parliamentary hearing on community police forums in 2019 identified numerous difficulties, especially in poorer areas. These included:
inconsistent and often problematic ways members were elected
a lack of office space at police stations to accommodate the forums
inadequate support and funding
misunderstandings about the mandate and role of the forums.
It’s encouraging that Ramaphosa highlighted the need to reinvigorate and support community policing forums. But considerably more resources and expertise will be required to make them more effective. This is particularly true in high crime areas.
It was also encouraging that Ramaphosa specified that the government would continue to prioritise the scourge of gender-based violence.
The need to prioritise fighting crime
I believe that the interventions set out by Ramaphosa will likely lead to an improvement in safety and security in South Africa. But there is a caveat: a more comprehensive approach is required if the country is to see a significant positive change.
Fortunately, the government has been engaged in an intense process of developing an Integrated Crime and Violence Prevention Strategy over the past ten years. This strives for a “whole of government and society” approach to the problem of crime. It also clearly specifies the prevention roles and responsibilities of all levels of government. It is essential that this strategy be prioritised too.