Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius was recently charged in South Africa with the homicide of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. On Feb. 22, Pistorious posted bail and walked free until his next court date in June. Given Pistorius’ fame, the story has been all over the news, bringing the corruption of the South African police force into the spotlight. Founded in 1995, the South African Police Service (SAPS) has been embroiled in controversy virtually since its inception. In 2007, the National Prosecuting Authority issued a warrant for the arrest of former National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi. He was arrested on charges with corruption, fraud, racketeering and defeating the ends of justice. In 2010 he was convicted of corruption, but found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Human Science Research council, in a 2007 study, found that over 60 percent of South Africans did not trust the police. There have been a number of incidents corroborating this data. According to The Economist, South African police statistics show that the police killed 566 people, some innocent bystanders, between 2009 and 2010. Amnesty International’s 2011 report on South Africa found numerous incidents of torture, extrajudicial killings and deaths in custody occurring within the SAPS’s jurisdiction. Sexual harassment and rape are also commonplace, according to South African residents.
The training methods employed by SAPS have also been called into question. Leaked footage shows recruits enduring physical and verbal abuse. The Mail & Guardian reports that recruits are additionally subjected to sleep deprivation and “military-style” training methods. According to SAPS consultant Chris Botha, there is a link between violent training and police brutality. It stands to reason, then, that SAPS has a severe problem with brutality. Between 2009 and 2010, there were 1,667 reported cases of police assault.
SAPS corruption has far-reaching and devastating implications. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation speculates that South Africa’s inflated rate of violent crime is due to the “normalization and widespread tolerance of violence.” Perhaps the blame for the “tolerance of violence” should fall on those tasked with preventing violence. South African police are notorious for accepting, and in some cases demanding, bribes in exchange for favors.
Perhaps South Africa’s violent crime problem stems not from the country’s culture, but from its pitifully inept police.
Thankfully, there are steps being taken to combat the corruption. In 2011, 630 cops were arrested on charges ranging from fraud and corruption to rape and murder. There has been discussion of adding an anti-corruption department to the police force, though no formal plans have been made just yet.
An efficient and transparent police force is essential to making South Africa safer. The police force may not be the only factor in the country’s rate of violent crime, but there will not be any substantive change made until an overhaul of SAPS is complete. The current system has proven to be a demonstrable failure. Now is as good a time as any to mend this scourge.