NEWS ANALYSIS: Mine tragedy leaves stain on SAPS reputation
AS THE Farlam commission of inquiry continued to hear startling evidence about police conduct during the shooting of 34 miners at Marikana last year, there was no doubt that 2012 damaged the reputation of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
Last year threw up so many questions about the state of the SAPS that it will likely remain under the public microscope throughout this year.
The fact that police were unable to gauge the extent of the Marikana threat and its tragic consequences has placed the spotlight on the public order policing unit, especially as the number of service delivery protests continues to increase.
Whether it is as a result of the shoot-to-kill policy introduced by former police commissioner Bheki Cele is open to debate.
What is sure is that its glaring inadequacies over the past 12 months did not stop in the North West mining town.
In October, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) heaped more pressure on the police when it released the findings of its probe into the death of activist Andries Tatane, who died at the hands of police in front of TV cameras during a service delivery protest in the Free State town of Ficksburg in 2011.
The SAHRC criticised the police’s ability to deal with protests, including their failure to authorise a "suitably qualified" member to represent police at negotiations with the protestors; and to ensure that an adequate number of police officers was deployed.
It recommended that the SAPS improve the training of police officers and develop a training manual for riot police.
The SAHRC was also perturbed by the lack of response it had received on issues it raised with the SAPS management, a fact the police ministry disputed.
Police management had been aware of shortcomings in the public order police capability for some time and had attempted to put in place processes to prevent the very tragedy that unfolded at Marikana.
In August 2011, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa told delegates at a public order policing conference that its current capabilities were not up to the required standard and announced specific interventions.
But one also can’t lose sight of the fact that the capability of public order police services had been affected by two rounds of restructuring, which authorities admit was a mistake, especially as the number of service delivery protests increased over the past few years.
This forced police management to re-establish a dedicated national public order policing unit in 2011.
But training problems extend beyond riot control. Police admitted last year that nearly 30,000 officers have been declared incompetent in the use of firearms; 16,954 officers do not have driving licences, and many failed fitness assessments.
Experts and analysts finger the lack of police credibility in its management for many of its problems. Previous commissioners Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele were both African National Congress loyalists with no police experience when appointed — and both left under a cloud of corruption allegations and charges.
In Gen Riah Phiyega, appointed in July last year, President Jacob Zuma has again seen fit to put at the helm of the SAPS a non-career police officer.
While her international expertise and qualifications, coupled with local understanding of management dynamics, were touted as factors that would benefit the SAPS, her appointment was met with much criticism.
In her first few weeks in office she was dogged by her apparent links to a company that had won a lucrative tender from the police administration. It is little wonder then that two-thirds of South Africans believe the most corrupt government officials are in the national police service, according to the findings of a Human Sciences Research Council survey.
The study, based on perceptions of corruption in the country, sampled 3,057 people from the ages of 16 years and older.
But, statistically at least, there was some solace for the beleaguered force of about 200,000.
Statistics released in September showed a significant decrease in contact crime, including murder and attempted murder.
Overall, 2012 was a year the SAPS will want to quickly forget; but it’s unlikely that the families of 34 dead Marikana miners, as well as the rest of the country, will allow the most tragic post-apartheid event to be swept under the carpet.