Policing a New South Africa

ONE reform announced by South African President Frederik de Klerk on Feb. 2, significantly affects a central institution of state power: the South African Police (SAP). The relaxation of some emergency measures only slightly reduces police powers. The structure, ethos, and priorities of the force remain intact. The SAP plays a prominent role in internal security, including enforcement of security measures, surveillance of political groups, and covert operations. Armed with the most advanced weapons and patrolling the black townships in armored cars, the police seem indistinguishable from the army. The paramilitary appearance and aggressive dealings with township residents contribute to the widespread view that they are an occupying force there. The police frequently have resorted to brutal methods including lethal force rather than more restrained forms of crowd control.

Security laws and emergency powers give police officers tremendous latitude in their daily activities and shield them from accountability. The Internal Security Act allows for indefinite detention without trial, and scores of detainees have been tortured and beaten - some fatally - in police custody. Emergency regulations indemnify officers for actions undertaken ``in good faith'' to deal with unrest. Few independent inquiries have been made into questionable police practices and no oversight body exists to review complaints or monitor larger policing problems. While the annual number of officers convicted of wounding or killing civilians ranged from 200 to 250 from 1970 to 1986, only about 10 percent of those officers were subsequently discharged from the force.

About 50 percent of the SAP is black; a police career is relatively well-paying and secure, and thus attractive in a society where extreme black unemployment is a fact of life. Black officers are despised in the townships and seen as legitimate targets by militants. Government figures report that from September 1984 to February 1988, 71 members of the police were killed and 880 injured, mostly black officers killed in violent clashes in the townships.

White officers are almost exclusively Afrikaner, working-class, and right wing. An estimated two-thirds support far right political organizations and harbor supremacist attitudes. They are skeptical and dismayed by the reforms implemented in the past few years and adamantly oppose the legalization of the ANC.

South Africa's authoritarian system of policing fuels racial and ethnic tensions and contributes to disorder and political polarization. In government circles it appears that little thought has been given to the adverse long-term consequences of this kind of policing. Despite President de Klerk's declared intention to ``normalize the political process,'' his administration does not accept that the police, and the larger internal security apparatus, is in need of radical overhaul. While ministers and police chiefs admit that there are a ``few bad apples'' in the SAP, officers are continually praised for their impartiality, accountability, political neutrality, professionalism, legitimacy (among blacks and whites alike), and commitment to the ideal of minimum force.

Changes should include the following: appointment of police chiefs committed to standards of professionalism; screening of all officers to remove those with strong sectarian and racist views; recruitment of greater numbers of black officers; demilitarization of the force; introduction of effective mechanisms of accountability including an independent oversight body responsible for handling complaints against the police; repeal of security measures giving the police excessive powers; and inculcation throughout the force of an organizational ethos that values justice, impartiality, political neutrality, and the use of minimum force.

These reforms would not jeopardize law and order. In fact, they would be likely to enhance order and political stability - by reducing arbitrary and ruthless practices that fuel popular discontent and violence.

If the government ignores the question of police reform, two outcomes are possible: Popular forces may wage a frontal attack on the police establishment, perhaps similar to the recent occupation and dismantling of the offices of the secret police in East Germany. Or a successor regime will inherit a force whose loyalty, professionalism, and popular acceptability will be seriously in doubt - as in Namibia.

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