Why South Africa’s New Armed Policing Units Won’t Address Insecurity

Cape Town’s Law Enforcement Advancement Plan (LEAP) and Gauteng’s Crime Prevention Wardens (CPWs) are not only potentially illegal, but miss the point about crime in South Africa.

In November 2022, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi announced the establishment of a provincial law enforcement body to aid SAPS in crime prevention. The goal was to reach 6,000 personnel. As of May 2023, 3,200 had been signed up in a rushed recruitment process.

These so-called wardens are meant to serve as armed, supplementary personnel. This initiative is similar to the City of Cape Town’s LEAP, established in 2019 and with a strength, as of June 2023, of 1,235 officers.

LEAP has grown more responsibly and gradually, with stricter and better training and recruiting processes, as well as abiding by a 2018 Government Gazette that allows municipalities to recruit peace officers. The CPWs are more concerning, as they may violate Section 119(3) of the Constitution, which stipulates that the establishment of any armed organisation must be in accordance with national legislation. Parliament had no say in the creation of either LEAP or the CPWs.

South Africa is facing a cataclysmic level of violent crime, yet SAPS’s mandate is bloated with victimless crimes and the enforcement of bad laws.

In essence, however, these auxiliary agencies are effectively just adding to the manpower of the local SAPS. This is not something that is necessarily bad. SAPS is drastically undermanned. But more armed but undertrained, potentially corrupt, and ill-equipped men and women will not aid in crime prevention. If implemented as badly as Lesufi’s CPWs have been so far, these projects may in fact support the criminal elements in our society.

The core of these organisations’ problems is that they only add to the rot inherent in SAPS. That is: endemic corruption, incompetent strategy, and a bloated mandate consisting of enforcing bad laws, rather than addressing violent crime itself.

Endemic corruption

Policing topped a 2021 Corruption Watch list as the most corrupt sector, accounting for 10% of the report. The forms of corruption range from abuse of authority, violence against civilians, and simply not even doing one’s job. Bribery is also endemic, followed by extortion.

This initiative is a simple addition to SAPS’s overall mandate and structures. What is stopping the CPWs (and perhaps even LEAP, if the City of Cape Town’s oversight becomes lax) from duplicating the corruption of SAPS? They have guns, uniforms, and the capacity to use their position for extortion and abuse of citizens.

The arming of these auxiliaries, while necessary for them to function, also opens a scary possibility. SAPS is already notorious for selling huge numbers of firearms to criminals.

In 2020, a former policeman was released on parole after being jailed for selling more than 2 000 firearms to gangs in the Cape Flats. That’s just a single corrupt police officer, arming the equivalent of 13 United States Marine Corps companies. We can only be glad that gangsters aren’t equipped to do as much damage as a properly trained soldier.

How many guns could corrupt LEAP or CPW personnel put in the hands of our violent criminals? Corruption spreads like a cancer throughout institutions, and as partners to SAPS, these organisations could join their corrupt comrades in this profitable and grotesque enterprise.

Incompetent strategy

While personnel are always needed to implement strategy, simply throwing bodies at a problem only leads to loss of life and an exacerbation of the issue. More undertrained law enforcement personnel on the streets only means more potentially corrupt officers, more deaths, and a larger tax burden, without any genuine gains.

SAPS and law enforcement in general need to embrace sound policy and strategy to address the crime issue. We should be focusing on training effective detectives, equipping surgical combat teams, building vast informant networks, and using intelligence rather than starting expensive, so-called visible policing initiatives.

Too many bad laws

South Africa is facing a cataclysmic level of violent crime, yet SAPS’s mandate is bloated with victimless crimes and the enforcement of bad laws. This fills up scarce prison space and distracts law enforcement from saving lives and punishing real criminals.

Victimless drug and vice offences should be put on the backburner, if not decriminalised or legalised outright. On top of this, overregulation of businesses in the form of stringent labour laws and, notably, BEE, should be stopped – not just to ease the strain on the bureaucracy and law enforcement, but also to enable greater economic growth. This would generate wealth to equip better police and provide jobs for the unemployed so that they do not need to consider crime.

Are auxiliary police agencies a bad idea?

The CPWs and LEAP aren’t completely bad ideas. Decentralisation of police agencies and the growth of local law enforcement are good for solving a part of our crime issues. LEAP has demonstrated already that under a responsible municipality, supplementary police organisations can work.

But for these agencies to do as well as they should, they need to be closely monitored by watchdogs, while also being divorced from the rotten institutions that have led to this police crisis in the first place. That means real decentralisation, better training, capacity to engage in better strategy and modern investigation practices, and constant auditing to ensure that corruption hasn’t set in.

South Africa can solve its violent crime issues. But employing more police isn’t the solution. LEAP and the CPWs can break the cycle of incompetence – but they need to be better than SAPS, and not accomplices in its ineptitude.

Nicholas Woode-Smith is an associate at the Free Market Foundation.

Article first appeared in the Daily Friend.

Photo by Ev via Unsplash.