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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Early Development

The South African Police Service (SAPS) traces its origin to the Dutch Watch, a paramilitary organization formed by settlers in the Cape in 1655, initially to protect (white) civilians against attack and later to maintain law and order. In 1795 British officials assumed control over the Dutch Watch, and in 1825 they organized the Cape Constabulary, which became the Cape Town Police Force in 1840. The Durban Police Force, established in 1846, became the Natal Mounted Police in 1861, and gradually assumed increasing paramilitary functions as South Africa endured the last in a series of frontier wars that had continued for more than a century.

In 1913 a number of police forces consolidated into the Mounted Riflemen's Association, and some members of this association established a separate organization, which they called the South African Police (SAP). Four years later, the Mounted Riflemen's Association relinquished its civilian responsibilities to the SAP as most of the riflemen left to serve in World War I. The SAP and the military maintained their close relationship even after the SAP assumed permanent responsibility for domestic law and order in 1926. Police officials often called on the army for support in emergencies. In World War II, one SAP brigade served with the Second Infantry Division of the South African Army in North Africa.

When the National Party (NP) edged out its more liberal opponents in nationwide elections in 1948, the new government enacted legislation strengthening the relationship between the police and the military. The police were heavily armed after that, especially when facing unruly or hostile crowds. The Police Act (No. 7) of 1958 broadened the mission of the SAP beyond conventional police functions, such as maintaining law and order and investigating and preventing crime, and gave the police extraordinary powers to quell unrest and to conduct counterinsurgency activities. The Police Amendment Act (No. 70) of 1965 empowered the police to search without warrant any person, receptacle, vehicle, aircraft, or premise within two kilometers of any national border, and to seize anything found during such a search. This search-and-seize zone was extended to within ten kilometers of any border in 1979, and to the entire country in 1983.

The Police Reserve, established in 1973, enabled the government to recall former police personnel for active duty for thirty to ninety days each year, and for additional service in times of emergency. Another reserve (volunteer) force was established in 1981, consisting of unpaid civilians willing to perform limited police duties. A youth wing of this reserve force reported that it had inducted almost 3,000 students and young people to assist the police during the late 1980s.

The police increased the use of part-time, specialized personnel, such as the special constables (kitskonstabels ), to help quell the growing violence in the 1980s. In 1987, for example, the police recruited almost 9,000 kitskonstabels and gave them an intensive six-week training course. These "instant" police assistants were then armed and assigned to areas of unrest, which were often the most turbulent townships. Even with training courses extended to three months, the kitskonstabels ' often brutal and inept performance contributed to the growing hostility between the police and the public by the late 1980s.

Although the mission of the SAP grew well beyond conventional policing responsibilities during the 1970s, the size of the police force declined relative to population. In 1981 the police force of roughly 48,991 represented a ratio of less than 1.5 police per 1,000 people, down from 1.67 per 1,000 people in the 1960s. Alarmed by the increased political violence and crime in the mid-1980s and by the lack of adequate police support, officials then increased the size of the police force to 93,600--a ratio of 2.7 per 1,000 people--by 1991.

The police are authorized to act on behalf of other government officials when called upon. For example, in rural areas and small towns, where there may be no public prosecutor available, police personnel can institute criminal proceedings. The police can legally serve as wardens, court clerks, and messengers, as well as immigration, health, and revenue officials. In some circumstances, the police are also authorized to serve as vehicle inspectors, postal agents, and local court personnel.

The Police in the 1990s

After President de Klerk lifted the ban on black political organizations and released leading dissidents from prison in 1990, he met with the police and ordered them help end apartheid, to demonstrate greater political tolerance, and to improve their standing in black communities. The police accepted these orders, but did so much more slowly and reluctantly than the military. White police personnel were, in general, ambivalent about the changes taking place and divided over strategies for implementing them. For decades the police force had been organized around the authoritarian ideal of maintaining apartheid. With wide-ranging powers, the police had operated without strong institutional checks and balances and without serious external scrutiny. For many, the government's new policies represented an abrupt reversal in the orientation of the police.

Through the early 1990s, police units were sometimes integrated, but most police recruits had been trained in single-race classes, sometimes in institutions designated for one racial group. For example, most black police personnel had trained at Hammanskraal, near Pretoria; most whites, in Pretoria; most coloureds, at Lavis Bay, near Cape Town; and Asians at Wentworth, near Durban. As the apartheid era ended, these programs were restructured to emphasize racial tolerance and respect for basic human rights. The police also increased recruitment among black youth and hired international police training experts to advise them on ways to improve race relations in the service.

The basic police training regimen includes courses in criminal investigation procedures, self-defense, weapons handling, drills, inspections, public relations, and law. Specialized courses include crowd and riot control, detective skills, horsemanship and veterinary training, and advanced-level management skills. Since 1990, South Africa also has provided training for police from Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, and Zaire.

Police officers on duty generally carry a pistol or revolver and a truncheon. To quell disturbances, police use a variety of arms, including 37-millimeter stopper guns, which can shoot tear gas, rubber bullets, or signal colors; twelve-gauge Browning semiautomatic and Beretta pump shotguns; and R-1 semiautomatic rifles. Through the early 1990s, the police were also equipped with smoke and tear-gas dispensing vehicles, tank trucks with water cannons, vehicles that dispensed barbed wire or razor wire to cordon off areas rapidly, and a small number of helicopters capable of dropping "water bombs" on crowds of demonstrators. Riot-control forces deployed in specially designed buses or Casspir armored personal carriers.

The climate of escalating violence in the early 1990s often posed even greater challenges to the police than they had faced in the 1980s, as violence shifted from antigovernment activity to a mosaic of political rivalries and factional clashes. At the same time, many South Africans feared that the police were causing some of the criminal and political violence, and they demanded immediate changes in the police force to mark the end of apartheid-era injustices.

To meet the new challenges, the 91,000 active police personnel in 1991, including administrative and support personnel, were increased to more than 110,000 by 1993 and 140,000 by 1995. Throughout this time, police reserves numbered at least 37,000. In 1996 the combined active and reserve police represented a police-to-population ratio of almost 4.0 per 1,000.

As part of the overall reorganization of the police, the government merged the formerly dreaded Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the police security branch to form a Crime Combatting and Investigation (CCI) Division. The new CCI, with responsibility for reversing the rising crime rate, combined the intelligence and operational resources of the security police with the anticrime capabilities of the CID.

Minister of Law and Order Hernus Kriel in 1991 also appointed an ombudsman to investigate allegations of police misconduct. He increased the recruitment of black police personnel, formed a civilian riot-control unit that was separate from the SAP but worked with it, developed a code of police conduct agreed upon by a number of political parties and communities, and substantially increased police training facilities. In 1992 Kriel began restructuring the SAP into a three-tiered force consisting of a national police, primarily responsible for internal security and for serious crime; autonomous regional forces, responsible for crime prevention and for matters of general law and order; and municipal police, responsible for local law enforcement and for minor criminal matters. He also established police/community forums in almost every police station.

By the time the April 1994 elections were held, the SAP had undergone a significant transformation, in keeping with the nation's sweeping political reforms. It was a more representative force, with greater dedication to protecting citizens' rights. The SAP was renamed the South African Police Service (SAPS), and the Ministry of Law and Order was renamed the Ministry of Safety and Security, in keeping with these symbolic reforms. The new minister of safety and security, Sydney Mufamadi, obtained police training assistance from Zimbabwe, Britain, and Canada, and proclaimed that racial tolerance and human rights would be central to police training programs in the future. By the end of 1995, the SAPS had incorporated the ten police agencies from the former homelands and had reorganized at both the national level and at the level of South Africa's nine new provinces.

The SAPS headquarters in Pretoria is organized into six divisions. These are the Crime Combatting and Investigation Division, the Visible Policing Division, the Internal Stability Division, the Community Relations Division, the Supporting Services Division, and the Human Resource Management Division.

The Crime Combatting and Investigation Division holds overall responsibility for coordinating information about crime and investigative procedures. It administers the SAPS Criminal Record Center, the SAPS Commercial Crime Unit, the SAPS Diamond and Gold Branch, the South African Narcotics Bureau, the Stock Theft Unit, the Inspectorate for Explosives, murder and robbery units located in each major city, and vehicle theft units throughout the country. In addition, the division manages the National Bureau of Missing Persons, which was established in late 1994.

The Visible Policing Division manages highly public police operations, such as guarding senior government officials and dignitaries. Most government residences are guarded by members of the division's Special Guard Unit. The division's all-volunteer Special Task Force handles hostage situations and other high-risk activities. The Internal Stability Division is responsible for preventing and quelling internal unrest, and for assisting other divisions in combatting crime. The Community Relations Division consults with all police divisions concerning accountability and respect for human rights. The Supporting Services Division manages financial, legal, and administrative aspects of the SAPS. The Human Resource Management Division helps to hire, to train, and to maintain a competent work force for the SAPS.

Three police unions are active in bargaining on behalf of police personnel and in protecting the interests of the work force, as of 1996. These are the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), which has about 15,000 members; the South African Police Union (SAPU), which has about 35,000 members; and the Public Service Association (PSA), which has about 4,000 members.

Data as of May 1996

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South Africa Table of Contents