Police unions and police reform
Mpho Kwinika, President – South African Police Union
Paper presented at the Berkeley-ANU Conference on Police Reform from the
Bottom-up, 12-13 October 2006.
Police reform in South Africa started in earnest in 1995, in the aftermath of the
April 27, 1994 first post-apartheid, democratic elections. Police trade
unionism, however, started several years before that, necessitated by an
apartheid system that permeated all sectors of society.
Institutional police reform
Some of the reforms with far-reaching implications had a symbolic slant to
them. It is the symbolism that has had the effect of permeating the psyche of
members, thereby ushering in a conceptual and paradigmatic shift – from a
military structure of policing to the current one which, while still paramilitary,
exudes characteristics of a civilian-friendly, humane service.
The apartheid government presided over a Department and Ministry of Law and
Order, with a policing arm known as the South African Police force (SAP). The
mandate of the SAP was simply to keep law and order. What clearly arises of
the thinking of the time is that there was general lawlessness and disorder,
which the policewomen and policemen of the time had to put an end to.
Without overstating the fact, it is a well-known fact that the lawlessness and
disorder that the apartheid government of the time felt dutibound to attend to
had more to do with the struggle for the liberation of the majority of the
population from the yoke of apartheid racialism, underdevelopment and
The SAP of the time was headed by a general, a very military title. The
general at the helm of the SAP behaved as expected of all generals – issued
orders and expected nothing but obedience from his subordinates. He would
not entertain a junior police officer, regardless of the extent and seriousness of
their grievances, especially if these were against those reporting to him or her.
It is a well-known fact that the SAP was not only militarised in form, it actually
behaved in military fashion, including via incursions into other states and
engaging in territorial warfare with armies of South Africa’s neighbours.
In a word, not only was this army known as the SAP an enemy to the majority
of the population, it actually actively engaged in offensive activities in other
In 1995, the post-apartheid dispensation, as already pointed out, brought with
it symbolic and conceptual, yet far-reaching changes. The Department and
Ministry of Law and Order became the Ministry and Department of Safety and
Security; the South African Police force became the South African Police
Services (SAPS); and the head of policing changed from general to
The conceptual shift meant that post-apartheid South African policing would
focus its attention and energies on making sure all members of society feel safe
and secure. The officers within the ranks of the SAPS had their focus shifted
from being a force at the behest of those at its helm, to a service at the
disposal of communities.
For the first time in South Africa, the concept of community policing entered
the general lexicon. All police stations are now in a position to have attached
to them community policing forums (CPFs) which serve, among others, as the
balancing force for possible abuse by police in the conduct of their duties.
By far the most critical innovation in post-apartheid policing was the
Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), established to investigate and act
on complaints to do with police ineptitude and brutality, especially towards
citizens in custody.
In summary, the post-apartheid policing dispensation has marked a gradual
shift from militaristic, forceful attitude to humane, citizen-friendly services.
Unlike in the past, the cherry on top is that citizens and serving officers have
processes through which they can have their complaints against the SAPS
Police trade unionism and reform
The first and general point to be made here is that all manner of progressive
organizing was outlawed under the apartheid government. When it came to
the police and other professions (nurses, teachers, soldiers, etc.) the situation
was worse, largely due to the misplaced view that these public servants were
not supposed to harbour political interests, with which trade unions were
Police trade unionism in South Africa dates back to 1989, but gained more
momentum in the aftermath of the 1990 unbanning of opposition political
parties and release of political leaders, including former President Nelson
Mandela. The trailblazer in police trade unionism was the Police and Prisons
Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), which saw for the first time in history police
officers down tools (guns!) and go on strike to press demands for better
Indeed POPCRU took a radical approach to issues, taking the then apartheid
state head-on with regards issues of the general conditions of work of police
officers. It was a very welcome relief from the dull situation that defined the
political life of police officers under apartheid. It was also a rather dangerous
enterprise because the apartheid state then would not blink a bit in dealing
severely with whoever it thought sought to undermine its grip on power, which
was what the likes of POPCRU and others set out to do.
The South African Police Union (SAPU) was formed in 1993 partly as a force to
counter-balance POPCRU’s militant stance, and in a way to restore confidence
in police professionalism, something that seemed to have been lost during the
POPCRU activities. Unlike POPCRU which is openly politically aligned through
its affiliation to COSATU (the 1.8 million member Congress of South African
Trade Unions, a federation in alliance with the ruling African National Congress
(ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP)), SAPU has consciously taken
the stance that it would remain apolitical as a union. This is not to say our
members are politically neutral; on the contrary, we have within our ranks
political animals that play several influential roles in society.
We exist for our members, as a forum for the prosecution of struggles to
improve their lot. We handle issues of their remuneration, including for
overtime work. We take up issues of their safety in pursuit of the dangerous
endeavour that constitutes their profession. Statistics indicate that South
Africa boasts one of the highest rates of police deaths on duty, making it even
more necessary for us to engage that powers-that-be in talks to find creative
ways of not only reining this in, but ensuring that the fullest might of the law is
brought to bear on perpetrators of the crime of police murders.
We are an agent for police and policing reforms. Where we stand, it is clear
that the transition from the South African Police force (SAP) to the South
African Police Services (SAPS) has been an important and decisive move. We
appreciate the fact that our role has effectively transformed from one of
ensuring ‘law and order’ in society, to one where we ensure communities feel
safe and secure in the knowledge that we are there to serve and protect them.
We share the view that the SAPS of post-apartheid South Africa is a friend of
the communities it has been established to serve. This is in stark contrast to
the SAP for of yesteryear, from which communities ran and hide because they
thought of it as the enemy bent on inflicting pain.
All these positive and progressive developments amount to reforms about which
we are proud. They have the effect of transforming policing from a military
body to a humane, society-oriented service. More still has to be done, though.
Together with POPCRU, we continue to prosecute struggles for the
improvement of the working conditions of our members: the working hours, the
remuneration levels, handling of grievances and the broad issues of the safety
of police members in the light of rampant crime, at times targeted specifically
at uniformed police.
To us and in spite of the positive developments we have referred to, the SAPS
remains a paramilitary body in need of transformation. Such transformation
should not depend on police officers who hold senior positions, but be
embedded within regardless of who holds office. Specifically, we would like a
situation where police grievances can be processed with as little difficulty as
possible, where junior officials are able to approach the highest offices in the
Service to lodge complaints without the possibility of their immediate
supervisors using this to victimise them.