SAPS winning our war

Just as they are winning the war on crime, bemused police have their own crimes and misdemeanours focussed on. Yet winning the war they are, and we may be pleased.

We are becoming more lawful and harder on criminals, a sometimes unspoken reversal of trends to utter chaos that once existed. When full democracy came in 1994, it came with a founding myth of a “peaceful transition”, even of a “miracle”. It was nothing of the sort.

Apartheid, an inherently violent system in ways overt and in nuance, was overthrown by two forces: economic integration and a “People’s War” of ungovernability that saw mainly young, lionised township activists attack anything of authority. The death toll between its launch in 1984 and its victory 10 years on was about 24 000. Its lawlessness would live on.

Typical to civil war, one consequence was of criminals taking advantage of partial state collapse. That the new democratic state would impose itself on society was not pre-ordained. It has been a process funded by taxpayers, with business and civil society interventions, and carried through by the criminal justice system, and it’s working.

Bear with these crime trend statistics compiled by the SAIRR: per 100 000 people, annual murders between 1994 and last year fell 54%, attempted murder 57%, assault 30%, arson 55%, damage to property 24%, vehicle thefts 57%, home robbery 19%, robberies at non-residential buildings 39%.

The law in 2007 increased the range of sexual offences, making statistical comparisons impossible with times before. But SAPS reports a 14% drop of reported crimes against women since then, while all crime against children fell 7% since 2003. The Medical Research Council says that the top 10 causes of non-natural deaths (not all of them crimes) fell 13% just between 2007 and 2008.

The police force has doubled from the late Eighties to 200 000, with only 18% in administration. With one policeman to every 305 people, SA is better served than New Zealand, Canada or the US. Public order force numbers jumped 40% between 2010 and 2011, and police are backed up by reservists, metropolitan forces and 411 000 active private security officers.

For their part, courts are tougher. Where 2% of sentences were for 10 years or more in 1995, now 48% are, with another 21% up to 10 years, even while prison overcrowding, at 2%, has virtually disappeared.

Yet some habits of ungovernability die hard, as the Marikana commission of inquiry heard last week. In just the last three years, the police faced 33 500 public order incidents. At Marikana, their intervention followed a build-up of “scab” labour being murdered, and communities and rival unionists terrorised, with 10 killings (including two policemen) immediately prior to police shootings.

After that, and despite a spread of mining strikes, scab killing virtually ceased. The Independent Police Directorate counts 932 people killed by the police in 2011/12, a third more than a decade back.

Encouraged by a society under siege, the police have fought a hard war on crime since 1994, with 2 754 of them making the ultimate sacrifice. They are winning. The democratic state’s authority is being entrenched, and we are safer in many consequential ways. The thin blue line deserves our gratitude for that.

– Paul Pereira (First published in The Citizen, 19 March 2013)