As it is the National Police Day on 27 January, it is pertinent to reflect on how the South African Police Service (SAPS) have fared over the past year, and the challenges that lie ahead in 2021, especially in relation to the policing of the Covid-19 regulations.
All-in-all, 2020 was a gruelling year for the women and men in blue. Over-and-above their crime control responsibilities the police were required to implement various unwelcome lockdown measures.
Thousands of SAPS personnel, including the National Police Commissioner, contracted the coronavirus. Most recovered, but more than 340 police officials died due to health issues related to the pandemic, which was a greater number than the combined total of SAPS deaths at the hands of criminals since 2016. Chances are that more SAPS officials will contract the coronavirus, and more police will die.
Given government's sluggish vaccine response, it appears highly likely that 2021 will be similar to 2020, with the SAPS having to continue to enforce various forms of lockdown regulations in response to successive waves of heightened Covid-19 infections.
High density approach
In early 2020, the rapid global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with the relatively short time that the SAPS were given to prepare an implementation plan to compel the general population to comply with the lockdown regulations, resulted in the police resorting to the SAPS' tried-and-tested area-based crime combatting strategy to 'fight' the virus.
More specifically, the SAPS high-density policing approach became government's primary lockdown compliance strategy. Such a strategy involves the use of forceful policing tactics to control crime, as well as "assert" or "stamp" the authority of the state. It frequently takes the form of saturating targeted areas with security force personnel, followed by roadblocks, robust interactions with residents and mass arrests of those regarded as law-breakers.
The SAPS' decision to apply existing crime fighting strategies to enforce lockdown regulations appeared to be relatively rational on the part of government as there was considerable congruence between the crime combatting approach that had been pursued by the Justice, Security and Crime Prevention Cluster since the late-1990s and the public health approach to mitigating the spread of pandemics, as advocated by specialist epidemiologists and the South African Department of Health.
That is, both the crime and contagion control approaches entail surveillance and data analysis of a specific problem which is then used to identify problem hotspots or spatial clusters, and thereafter targeted, area-specific containment and prevention measures are pursued.
Furthermore, the high-density template was familiar to police and military commanders and most operational personnel, which meant the security forces could be deployed in large numbers from the start of the "hard" lockdown.
However, other than vague public statements from President Cyril Ramaphosa and various Cabinet ministers that security force personnel should respect the constitutional rights of South Africans, it became evident within a few days into the national lockdown that there had been insufficient consideration by government of the risks to ordinary citizens of using a hyper-militarised crime combatting strategy to address a public health matter.
For much of 2020 there were various allegations of abuse, as well as videos on social media of police and military personnel forcing people in various parts of South Africa to perform demeaning physical exercises such as push-ups, squats and bunny hops. These exercises were used as a means of punishment for those persons allegedly not adhering to lockdown regulations, and for those who supposedly disregarded instructions from, and/or were disrespectful towards security force members.
Photographs and videos were circulated via social media platforms of security force personnel using rubber rounds, plastic pipes, sjamboks, and in some cases, live ammunition against those suspected of violating the regulations. More recently, police shamefully used a riot control water cannon to hose down pensioners that were queuing outside the Department of Social Development offices in Bellville that had ignored police orders to disperse. In St Francis Bay, police were accused of firing stun grenades at surfers who were in the ocean in violation of the lockdown regulations.
A fundamental pillar of police work in a democracy, which has particular resonance during an extreme crisis, is that of policing by consent. This is a state of affairs where citizens recognise the authority of the police and the lawful right of the police to act in specific ways, and they consequently forfeit certain rights and freedoms that they would typically enjoy in the absence of recognised authority in the interests of public order and peace. Studies have shown that policing by consent can contribute to: Closer social bonds between the police and citizens; police effectiveness; and greater commitment to the rule of law by the general public. A crucial ingredient of policing by consent is mutual trust between the police and the communities that they serve.
Enforcing unpopular regulations
However, during 2020, public trust in the SAPS, which was already at relatively low levels, took a hammering due to the various incidents of excessive use of force by the police. This was further undermined by the National Coronavirus Command Council's requirement that the police enforce a number of unpopular regulations, especially the prohibition on the sale of tobacco products and alcohol.
Public trust in the police was also diminished due to numerous reports about police corruption, with some police personnel being implicated in the smuggling and illegal sale of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, as well as the solicitation of bribes at roadblocks and during police raids. There were also scandals relating to corruption and the supply of over-priced personal protective equipment to the SAPS.
Indications from the SAPS leadership and the Ministry of Police are that the police will continue to adopt a forceful and militarised approach to the policing of the pandemic in 2021. They have argued that such tactics are essential to "saving lives".
Alas, such a decision will continue to have damaging consequences for South Africa's delicate democracy as public trust in the police's commitment to their constitutional obligation to "protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic" will be further eroded.