Public mistrust and dysfunction of South African police echo apartheid. Meanwhile, civil society seeks a break from the past.


A Commission of Inquiry investigating police dysfunction is now entering its fourth week in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s largest and fastest growing townships. In August 2012, Western Cape Premier and Democratic Alliance member Helen Zille appointed the Commission in response to continued complaints against the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) three stations in Khayelitsha. The Commission was delayed for over a year after Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, member of the ANC, challenged its legality in South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The Court concluded that section 206 (5) of the South African Constitution gives a province the power to establish a commission of inquiry into policing.

Allegations against the police force in Khayelitsha include brutality, poor criminal investigation practices (especially in cases of rape), habitual loss of crime dockets,  lack of assistance to community members, a complete breakdown of police-community relations, and overall neglect in efforts to curb Khayelitsha’s increasing rate of violent crime. The Commission will review over 50,000 pages of police documents, conduct field investigations in Khayelitsha, and hear individual testimonies from residents.

Located less than 30 minutes from Cape Town central, Khayelitsha was established as one of the apartheid government’s last attempts to enforce the Group Areas Act of 1950. Today, it is estimated that over one-million residents call Khayelitsha home, with the majority of families living in poorly constructed shacks and under conditions of food insecurity. Crime is rampant and residents of all ages have come to consider it a part of everyday life in the township. Residents and local NGOs argue that insufficient policing has resulted in the rise of vigilante groups that take matters into their own hands by killing suspected criminals. Between 2011 and 2012, figures suggest that there were at least 78 murders committed by vigilante groups in Khayelitsha alone. Those suspected of crime are frequently put to death by necklacing, a practice gruesome enough to be left to your own Google searches for clarification. Necklacing has occurred in broad daylight, in full public view, and with no police to be found nearby.


The situation in Khayelitsha is not new, instead reflecting the enduring and, at times, seemingly inescapable legacy of apartheid. The African National Congress has acknowledged that the ongoing crisis in police accountability, incompetence, and brutality is a direct result of the historical role played by police in enforcing oppressive apartheid policies upon black communities while entrenching white minority rule. In a discussion paper, ANC contributor Fink Haysom writes “…We must appreciate that the South African Police has been more profoundly scarred by apartheid than any other institution…caught between abhorrent, unpopular political policies and the persons upon whom these policies were enforced. The police were required to perform the front line role in the maintenance of apartheid. That they did so with enthusiasm has marked them out as apartheid zealots.” In consequence, an entire generation of black South Africans “endured only the enforcement, not the protection of the law.” Today, Khayelitsha residents seem to benefit from neither.

The legacy of apartheid-era policing will undoubtedly infect every aspect of the Commission’s proceedings, as it should. As the ANC has also indicated, police reform must include not only practical, institutional changes, but a recognition and reconciliation of the lost trust in community-police relationships, both in recent and more distant times. Rebuilding that trust starts with delivering on South Africa’s constitutional guarantees regarding public security. The post-apartheid constitution, adopted in 1996, assigns the South African Police Service the responsibility “to prevent, combat and investigate crime, maintain public order, protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic and their property, uphold and enforce the law, create a safe and secure environment for all people in South Africa, prevent anything that may threaten the safety or security of any community, investigate any crimes that threaten the safety or security of any community, ensure criminals are brought to justice, and to participate in efforts to address the causes of crime.” In Khayelitsha, the SAPS has shirked each of these responsibilities.


Fortunately, civil society organizations have stepped-in to hold the SAPS and the government accountable. The appointment of the Commission itself highlights the vibrancy and critical role of civil society in South Africa. Since 2003, prominent local and national NGO’s including the Social Justice Coalition, Ndifuna Ukwazi, Equal Education, the Treatment Action Campaign, the Women’s Legal Centre, Free Gender, and the Triangle Project have organized hundreds of petitions, protests, and marches with the intention of pressuring the government to rectify the abysmal public security situation in Khayelitsha as well as across the country. While it should not have taken the Western Cape government nearly a decade to respond, progress is still progress.

The Commission plans to complete its investigations in the first half of 2014. Its findings, as well as recommendations for improvements, will be submitted to President’s Cabinet for policy consideration.

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3 Responses to Public mistrust and dysfunction of South African police echo apartheid. Meanwhile, civil society seeks a break from the past.

  1. findleyjn says:

    African police forces tend to be known for their violent habits and inability to effectively protect the people. While in Port Elizabeth, South Africa a few summers ago, necklacing was a big issue in the townships. I think the Commission of Inquiry is a step in the right direction, and may be beneficial for other African countries to consider. However, it is also shedding light on a larger issue, the issue of dysfunctional police forces in general. Hopefully this Commission will result in recommendations for the improvement (better training, more resources, neighborhood watches, etc.) of the police force in a way that could be replicated by other nations to improve their police forces.

  2. liasor101 says:

    I completely agree with this first comment. I would add that in the existing discourse on “fixing Africa”, it has been cited that African countries may not be looking necessarily to replicate the steps that have been successful for its neighbors. Instead, each individual nation should seek different means that will lead to the same result of success however success is defined. By different means, I do not mean violence but rather institutions, like you suggest, that are unique to each country in fixing big problems like the broader dysfunctional police force that may characterize it.

  3. mattryanshade says:

    The issue of police violence, selective enforcement of the law, and distrust from the community is an extremely important issue and I’m glad you posted about it. This is truly a global problem, from South Africa, to Ukraine, to the United States. I believe the militarization and increased oppressive powers of police forces in any country is a threat to democracy, particularly places like South Africa with apartheid having ended so recently. When a population stops trusting the organizations charged with keeping society safe for democracy, that distrust spread to the governments and their ideologies (including democratic principles).

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