‘They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’

So said Abba Eban, a South African-born Israeli diplomat, who was speaking about his Arab counterparts at peace talks in the early 1970s.

Whatever your views might be on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, this is certainly one of those pithy quotes that can be used to describe a wide variety of issues.

It came to mind when Police Minister Bheki Cele was on what seemed like a whirlwind trip around the country to visit communities that had been affected by crime.

Given the way Cele seemed to be wherever there was a press camera around, one could imagine Eban saying that the minister never misses an opportunity to have a photo opportunity.

But more seriously: the African National Congress (ANC) government of which Cele is part never misses an opportunity to miss any opportunity to reform South Africa, in any field. Policing, which Cele is ostensibly in charge of, is no different.

One reform which has been championed for some time by various players, is that of devolving police responsibility to others, and allowing for the creation of provincial police. However, this is something that the ANC has opposed for some time, effectively since the ANC was unbanned.

Given the rise in crime in recent years, and coupled with the growing lack of authority of the South African state in many parts of the country (witnessed with chilling effect in last year’s July unrest), innovative approaches are needed to the security crisis. However, a decentralisation of policing is not even considered by the government.

Speaking in Khayelitsha in Cape Town earlier this week Cele dismissed the creation of provincial police out of hand.

‘There is no such thing as provincial police,’ he was quoted as saying, in the presence of the Western Cape MEC for community safety, Reagan Allen, who was also at the meeting.

‘Constitutional delinquent’

Said Cele: ‘There is no KwaZulu-Natal police service. You will have to change the Constitution. Don’t waste time and energy,’ adding that, ‘I can’t be a constitutional delinquent.’

Although establishing provincial police will certainly not be a silver bullet to solving the problems which exist in South Africa, the devolution of policing to lower levels of government can go some way to bringing police closer to the people they serve.

In addition, the needs – in terms of policing – of the people in Kakamas in the Northern Cape are very different from those of the people of Alexandra in Johannesburg or Kloof in Durban. A central command in Pretoria cannot police South Africa with a one-size-fits-all model. And we saw the failings of this during last year’s riots, when the centralised police response to arguably the worst violence post-apartheid South Africa has suffered was tepid, to be kind.

And while Cele argues that the Constitution does not allow for the devolution of policing to the provinces, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Western Cape government have both argued that the Constitution allows for provincial police.

It could be argued that both have a point in this matter. The Constitution does say that South Africa has one national police force, but given the spirit of compromise with which this document was founded, there is also scope for other police services.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the DA’s predecessor, the Democratic Party (DP), which had argued strongly that there should be some scope for devolution of policing in the Constitution, with opposition from the ANC, which saw the establishment of municipal police explicitly referenced in the document.

Although the DP was the primary driver of the concept of municipal police in the early 1990s, the ANC soon warmed to the idea when they saw how popular it was amongst the public. By the middle of the 1990s several ANC-controlled municipalities had established municipal police.

This resistance to provincial police from the ANC is almost certainly only a proxy battle between the ANC and the DA. The ANC has previously been a supporter of municipal police – establishing provincial police is not significantly different.

Significant powers

At the same time, provinces have significant powers when it comes to policing, as well as the SAPS Act, being able to act as an oversight body and to set policy in the province. The Western Cape government could secure greater control and oversight of the police under the current constitutional and legislative framework.

Nevertheless, the Constitution can be amended to allow for provincial police. Some may point to the resistance of my employer, the Institute of Race Relations, to the proposed amendments to the Constitution which would allow for the expropriation of property without compensation. However, there is a fundamental difference between allowing a constitutional amendment which will affect basic human rights, such as the right to property, a recognised right in every liberal democracy on the planet, and another which changes the way that policing is managed in this country.

But one should not be surprised by the ANC’s resistance to the concept. It likely considers any move which would allow provincial police, especially in the Western Cape, some form of ‘federalism-lite.’ This goes against the ANC’s centralising instinct which has seen it opposed to any form of devolution or federalism, going back to the 1990s transition.

It used be in South Africa, that if the ANC said something, it went. This is no longer the case. Policy outside of the ANC paradigm is increasingly being considered, as South Africa starts preparing for a future without the party.

Cele and the ANC should, for once, get ahead of the curve, and look at how provincial police can be implemented, rather than opposing it, seemingly only on principle.

As the saying goes, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. But South African policing is broken. Let’s try to fix it.

[Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/car-police-cars-caravan-sirens-red-1531273/]

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.