Criminals in South Africa are evolving – and the police can’t keep up

 ·4 Mar 2024

The national budget’s focus on law enforcement for 2024 “was insufficient against the backdrop of soaring crime levels and years of neglect in terms of budgetary allocations to our country’s criminal justice cluster (CJC).”

This is the view presented by the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) – a trade union representing around 120,000 police, traffic and correctional officers across South Africa.

The budget allocated to the peace and security cluster for the 2024/2025 financial year was raised to R244 billion – up from R236.8 billion for 2023/2024.

However, “Popcru has serious reservations about whether this funding is sufficient to address each sector within the CJC,” said union president Thulani Ngwenya.

He said that criminals in the country are becoming increasingly sophisticated while “our police services, courts, prisons, traffic safety, and border management continue to fall behind.”

Outlining some of the issues in the CJC and presenting some suggestions, Ngwenya said that the demands being placed on increasingly stretched law enforcement are enormous, “[thus] far greater emphasis must be placed on peace and security if we are to meaningfully address the issue of criminality and lawlessness in our country.”

Police services

The policing sector has a R12.9 billion budgetary increase from R112.1 billion in 2023, to R125 billion in 2024.

However, Ngwenya said this “a drop in the ocean [as] SAPS has been critically underfunded for years, and requires a far larger sum to adequately address the severe gap in resource and capacity provisions.”

SAPS has been facing a massive shortage of police officers over the past several years, exacerbated by a declining police force. Most recently published statistics reveal that the country is over 80 thousand officers short of its ideal target.

In the 2024 budget speech, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana announced that 10,000 new police recruits will be trained this year.

However, Ngwenya said that this sounds “less impressive number when one considers that the SAPS is losing around 6,000 police officers each year through attrition, and that a large portion of officers will remain office-bound.”

“The result is a growing shortage of boots on the ground preventing crime,” he added.

Ngwenya recommends changing the way in which recruiting is currently done for the police department, and calls on SAPS to “release all trained officials who are occupying offices so that they can do what they were trained to do which is policing and protecting the communities.”

Courts and prison system

“There is severe pressure on our court systems and a dire state of overcrowding at our prisons,” said Ngwenya, describing both as “extremely dilapidated and understaffed.”

Courts and prisons were allocated R54.4 billion for the financial year – a R3 billion increase from the previous year.

However, Ngwenya described the budget as “neglecting the courts and prisons systems,” as an “increase in funding towards both these areas is simply not enough to ensure that crimes are prosecuted effectively, or to successfully house and rehabilitate prisoners.”

Speaking about South Africa’s correctional services, the union president stressed that the budget does not indicate “how much of the combined R54.4 billion… will go towards repairing prisons and hiring new prison staff.”

Regarding the courts, Ngwenya said the courts’ current working hours are inadequate due to excessive breaks and a relatively short timeframe.

“The court system should revert to the operational schedule observed in 2010, commencing at 08h00 and concluding at 17h00, [which could] expedite proceedings,” and better use its stretched resources.

Some other improvements suggested would be to dedicate resources to tracking the progress of judicial matters as “no one can tell how many [people] were prosecuted and rehabilitated… no one can account for this,” said Ngwenya.

However, with much of this up in the air, the current budget allocation leaves Popcru concerned that there would be no marked improvements in the conditions of South Africa’s courts and prisons.

Border and traffic safety management

Ngwenya said that unlike police services, courts, prisons, defence and state security agencies, the “Border Management Agency and traffic police have been overlooked” by the budget.

This is because, unlike the other sectors, Treasury has not disclosed how much these two sectors would be allocated from the R244 billion security cluster pool.

“As it stands, our country’s infamously porous borders are painfully understaffed and underequipped, giving them little power to control the flow of people and goods across our land and sea borders,” said Ngwenya.

“This results in troublingly high rates of illegal migration, the flow of illicit goods, and other criminal activities at our borders.,” he added.

Additionally, Ngwenya said that “without the necessary resources for traffic police, the carnage on our country’s roads will continue.”

Ngwenya recommends integrating border management into the police department, equipping them with international tools and powers to arrest and exercise police authority. He also suggests creating a specialized unit to handle border-related crimes and providing them with instruments to detect unlawful activities.

Read: 2024 Budget in a nutshell – the biggest winners and losers

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