Policing our forces

Monday, 18 January 1999

NOT so long ago, our affable Minister of Safety and Security — him of the broad smile while expressing discomfort — announced the unfreezing of some 2000 posts in the South African Police Services. (Actually, this was a couple of years ago, but no matter.)

Some months later, we in the news business began to ask the usual questions related to delivery; such as: "When will these 2000 positions be filled?"

The answer from the Ministry was astonishing. Some 200 000 applications had been received for the 2 000 positions. The SAPS was going through the rather tedious process of processing all of those applications. In the spirit of fairness embodied in our new constitution, all applicants who met the minimal criteria for the positions would have to be considered. The minimum qualification — a matric certificate.

I had filed this piece of information somewhere in the recesses of my cranium where it had lain and gathered dust until suddenly recalled after two events last week set in place one of my twisted thought processes.

The first of these events was a rather thought-provoking analysis of the 1998 matric results in the Cape Times on Wednesday by Helen Zille, director of the Department of Communication at the University of Cape Town.

Among other things, Zille drew attention to the decline in the percentage of students completing their final year of high school with matriculation exemption — that minimum qualification for admission to university — which got me thinking about the extremely large numbers of people out there with exemptions who are never going to get into tertiary education.

The other event was the daylight ambush and murder of police captain Benny Lategan here in Cape Town — which got me thinking about what it takes to be a good police officer.

In the bad old days, those of us who regularly interacted on a somewhat hostile basis with die Suid-Afrikaanse Polisie formed very definite opinions as to the minimum level of qualifications required.

In the spirit of reconciliation, I will try to be polite. Let's just say that physical attractiveness and a high level of intelligence did not appear to be high on the list of priorities. Blind obedience to authority, a propensity for bureaucracy, and a fondness for arbitrary violence — particularly against those who were pigmentally well-endowed — seemed to have been written into the prototype.

Come the new South Africa, and we find ourselves looking for kinder, gentler police officers who are able to obey both the letter and spirit of the laws that flow from from our constitution. Recruitment advertisements for London policemen and women — the old-fashioned bobby on the beat — put it quite well with a picture of a yobbo spitting into a bobby's face and the caption: "Are you man enough to take it?"

Fact: We have a vast number of people employed as police officers who are functionally illiterate, cannot drive, and generally cannot hold a conversation. We expect the same people to be out on the streets protecting us from the new breed of criminal who is intelligent, well-armed and trained to use a weapon, and drives the best cars that can be hijacked and illicitly registered.

Fact: We have a massive number of bright young school-leavers with matriculation exemptions who don't have a hope in hell of getting jobs.

Isn't it time to raise the stakes for admission to the ranks of the SAPS? Shouldn't matriculation exemption now be the minimum requirement? Better still, why not a matriculation exemption plus a driver's licence? In that way, we are not only getting intelligent recruits for the SAPS, but are also not wasting public funds on writing off police cars while training unlicenced drivers.

The public investment required to create an officer with the experience of Benny Lategan is substantial. At the same time, we have an outrageously high number of people vying for jobs on the police force. The time has come for us to start off with the best possible human resources that our educational system can deliver so that basic police skills such as operating a computer, or writing down a licence plate can be taken for granted.

Only then will those murdering scum who killed Lategan be drowned in a flood of competence.