South Africa Must Rethink Its Community Safety System

Instead of the current rigid approach, more flexibility and innovation would allow workable local safety initiatives.

Community Police Forums (CPFs) were foundational to South Africa’s 1990s transition to democracy. When first established, they provided a bridge between the police and communities in a context of deep mistrust and hostility towards the police. The forums have continued since then on the assumption that they make local policing more effective and accountable.

But high crime rates, falling levels of trust in law enforcement, and the diversification of community safety initiatives, question whether CPFs are pivotal to crime responses across the country. This is particularly so in some poorer communities that are worst affected by crime, where the forums may often be most dysfunctional.

South Africa’s 1990s police reform was in some respects a success, as reflected in improved police-community relationships in the early years following the transition. But the policing system isn’t contributing to sustained public safety or police legitimacy. Human Sciences Research Council surveys indicate that levels of trust in the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) have been at their lowest since the late 1990s. Since 2021, only 27% of the public trust or strongly trust the police.

CPFs are committees that are supposed to be set up at each police station. Composed of police and community representatives, they aim to facilitate communication and cooperation and perform oversight.

The Khayelitsha Commission said communities with the most crime may also have the least functional CPFs

Government information on the forums and their effectiveness is unclear. In his May budget speech, Police Minister Bheki Cele said there were 772 functional CPFs countrywide. The SAPS 2020-21 annual report describes functional CPFs at 1 150 of the 1 152 police stations.

A 2018 policy brief by the Civilian Secretariat for Police paints a more critical picture. It said the ‘relationship between SAPS Management and the CPF executive committee varies from one station to the other.’ It says most CPFs ‘do not call community meetings’ and that some forum executives have ‘become distant from the community’ or ‘are perceived to be representing SAPS against the community rather than the representatives of the community.’

As with other community mechanisms such as school governing bodies, effective CPFs are probably more often found in middle class areas where participants have professional skills that improve the forum’s functioning.

The 2014 report of the Khayelitsha Commission shows that communities with the most crime may also have the least functional CPFs. Concerns about police-community communication, which CPFs are supposed to facilitate, were also highlighted by the expert panel on the July 2021 unrest.

Considering their uneven performance, the emphasis on CPFs reflects the stagnation of government thinking

The forums were not only a focus of Cele’s budget speech but also President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in February. The continuing emphasis on CPFs, notwithstanding evidence about their highly uneven performance, reflects the stagnation of government thinking on responses to crime.

In poorer communities, the lack of resources is one obstacle to participation in local safety. Many believe CPFs need more resources to function better, although there is great uncertainty about how this should be done. CPFs have often become intertwined with local political contestation and power broking. The Khayelitsha Commission for instance, found that they are a vehicle for local ‘inter-organisation rivalries and gatekeeper politics.’

Resourcing CPFs risks creating perverse incentives for ‘voluntary’ participation and could enhance the potential for local safety and security to become a site of patronage. It may be more likely to compound CPF dysfunction than support effective community participation.

While CPFs have had a mixed impact, there has also been an expansion and diversification of community involvement in local safety. Mechanisms vary from traditional justice systems to vigilante actions and formal anti-crime initiatives. These include an increasing number of community patrol initiatives, some of which have been established by provincial governments. Others have emerged as community projects – some linked to CPFs and some independent.

Community patrols are increasing and some have been established by provincial governments

The increasing prominence of patrol groups in South Africa could reflect the reality in many African countries where the police are not the primary security provider in many areas. Community-based structures fill the vacuum created by the limitations of state security systems.

Patrol groups should be regulated in some way. In 2018, the SAPS launched the Community in Blue concept to ensure that community patrol groups work with police in a more standardised manner. Various provincial governments, including Gauteng, Limpopo and Western Cape, have taken steps to manage and support community involvement in these patrols.

One view put forward by the Civilian Secretariat for Police is that patrol groups should be subject to CPFs. But in some communities, CPFs do not have the capacity to perform this function or are unlikely to do so in an even-handed way. South Africa’s experience with community safety shows that a one-size-fits-all policy is unlikely to work in a country characterised by major inequalities.

Structures such as CPFs may be helpful in some communities but have limited value in others. More effective responses to crime require greater flexibility and innovation in the systems set up to support and manage community involvement in local safety.

David Bruce, Independent Researcher and Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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