South Africa’s crime statistics are nothing to rejoice about. While there has been a decline overall in the last decade, some crimes such as various categories of robbery, public violence, and drug-related crime, are increasing. Police capacity to tackle certain types of priority and organised crime has declined severely since the closure of hundreds of special investigating units in recent years, a study conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has found.

Corruption falls under the broader category of commercial crime, and there are few, if any statistics for it. Annual figures released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) shed no light on the situation, as only the overall statistic for commercial crime is released. In October 2015 the annual crime statistics did reveal that commercial crime dropped to 67 830 reported cases, down from a high of 91 500 in 2013.

However, commercial crime also encompasses white-collar crimes such as insider trading; banking crimes including cheque fraud, deposit slip scams and credit card fraud; syndicate fraud; public procurement fraud; and private sector corruption. Because there is no breakdown of the figure, analysts and other experts find it almost impossible to determine whether one specific type of crime is driving the fluctuating numbers of cases reported, and it’s difficult to develop an appropriate and effective response.

These crimes are considered to be grave threats to democracy, and specialised skills are needed to combat them effectively. In South Africa, the police expertise needed to fight commercial crime through intelligence-led investigations barely exists any more.

A report released in October by Prof Johan Burger of the ISS reveals the erosion of the specialised units within the police detective division – as opposed to the uniformed branch – and the subsequent effect on the levels of crime in South Africa. Titled No-man’s-land: The uncertain existence of SAPS specialised investigative units, the report details the different types of specialised units that existed within the SAPS, the rationale for shutting them down and the impact this has had on the police’s ability to tackle various organised and priority crimes.

Police anti-corruption capacity diminished

One major effect was a weakening in anti-corruption mechanisms, Burger wrote. When the anti-corruption unit was disbanded in 2003, reportedly on the direct instruction of former commissioner Jackie Selebi, it resulted in a loss of expertise and capacity in a complicated field.

Presently, there is no dedicated capacity in the SAPS to investigate corruption, apart from a limited capability within the Hawks, or Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation. Consequently there is little dedicated specialised capacity to deter police officials from becoming involved in corruption – so corruption has grown into a major problem and is seen by the South African public as being widespread in the SAPS.

Various sources confirm this perception – the 2011 Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, found that 66% of South Africa’s adult population thought that bribery and corruption are endemic in the police force. Respondents were asked to identify the areas of public service in which they felt bribery and abuses of power for personal gain were noticeably common, and the most frequently cited state representatives were the police.

The 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, published by Transparency International, revealed that 83% of South Africans felt that the police were corrupt or extremely corrupt. In the African version released on 1 December, 48% of South Africans polled said that they felt most or all of the police were corrupt.

Diminished capacity

The police force, although it is 152 000-strong, has been greatly weakened in the fight against serious, violent and syndicated crimes.

The SAPS once boasted 537 specialised units which focused on a wide variety of crimes, but because of well-intentioned but ill-considered restructuring, it lost much of its investigative capacity between 2000 and 2009. During this time most units were either simply closed down, or personnel were transferred to selected police stations. The levels of crime in the country peaked in 2002/03 and decreased until 2007/08 when they again started to rise.

“Specialised units are a necessity given the complexities of the various crimes facing the SAPS,” wrote Burger. The skill and expertise of officers tasked with investigating these crimes should be equal or greater than that of the criminals or syndicates – which is often considerable – and that is simply not the case.

Closing the doors of specialised investigation

In the days of George Fivaz, South Africa’s first national police commissioner, the police underwent consolidation from 11 separate agencies – the main one and those from the so-called homelands – into a single national force. Fivaz, a career policeman and trained detective who rose through the ranks, also oversaw the establishment of specialised units to combat violent crime, organised crime, diamond and gold theft, illegal trade in animal species, and more, under the umbrella of a serious and violent crime component and an organised crime component.

There was also a commercial crime component, comprising commercial crime units, syndicate fraud units and fraud units – these investigated criminal cases relating to fraud, corruption, money laundering, syndicate fraud and other offences.

And there was an anti-corruption unit (ACU), established in 1996, which had a national branch and nine provincial branches, with 17 units in operation.

In total, Fivaz oversaw the establishment of 537 specialised investigative units, spread across all provinces.

Fivaz’ successor Jackie Selebi had other plans. Selebi, a political appointee with no police experience, identified four main areas of focus – commercial crimes, including those committed by corrupt police officers; violent crime; crimes against women and children; and improvement of service delivery. He planned to re-restructure the police force to fall in with these focus areas, with the main aim of boosting capacity for crime investigation at police station level.

Speaking after the release of the 2006 SAPS annual report, Selebi argued that “the restructuring of the police will lead to a decrease in crime”. Statistics released in the years since have proven him wrong.

“Unlike Fivaz, his successor, Selebi, had no policing background and certainly no appreciation for the nature and value of specialised investigative units,” noted Burger.

Of the 537 special units in the revamped SAPS, by 2006 only 286 were left after Selebi put his plans into motion.

The national anti-corruption unit was among those that had closed down. Responsibility for the investigation of organised crime-related corruption was moved to the organised crime unit, while intelligence gathering in connection with corruption was moved to the crime intelligence division. All other corruption investigations were placed at station level, which was a bad idea, said former ACU national head Stefan Grobler.

“Corruption must, for reasons of security and protection of evidence, witnesses and whistle-blowers, be investigated separately,” he said in correspondence to Burger. “Corruption investigations face unique and serious threats, the least of which is intimidation, loss, theft and destruction of case dockets and the interference by colleagues and even from those at the very top.”

Various reasons were put forward for the ACU closure. Grobler said that Selebi ordered it supposedly because corruption was decreasing. Another former senior ACU official said that there was really no justification for closing the ACU, but that some individuals under investigation were uncomfortably close to decision-makers.

“Consequently, and in view of Selebi’s subsequent proven involvement in corrupt activities,” wrote Burger, “it now seems plausible that his decision to close down the ACU had an ulterior motive.”

Writing on the wall for Scorpions

A further round of restructuring took place from 2006 to 2008. The motive for this extensive restructuring, wrote Burger, seemed sound on paper, “but it failed to take into consideration a number of realities facing policing in South Africa. In most police forces in Western countries, police stations function within a web of wider support services that include specialised investigative units. While the reforms under Selebi did not do away with this support network, they greatly weakened it.”

The decentralisation of the special units also effectively stopped them from functioning effectively, Burger noted, because it was impossible to work as a cohesive unit when members were scattered. And morale and productivity suffered. “While the police lost a vast reservoir of investigative expertise in terms of being able to tackle complex crimes, there was little if any evidence that station-level policing benefited from the restructuring exercise.”

Selebi was suspended in January 2008 and charged with corruption. He was eventually replaced by Bheki Cele, also a non-policeman, in July 2009. Cele held the position for just two years, before being suspended for alleged corruption in October 2011 and fired in mid-2012. He was replaced with the incumbent, Riah Phiyega, who is also under suspension.

The disbandment in 2009 of the Scorpions, which fell under the justice department, and the introduction of the Hawks, which are controlled by the police, complicated matters. The independent SAPS directorate has been beset by controversy almost since the beginning, with a court challenge less than two years after its establishment resulting in a judgment that the legislation that governed it did not protect it from interference. The amended legislation was introduced in 2012 but even today, wrote Burger, the Hawks are not protected from interference, as can be seen in the resignation of its former head, Anwa Dramat, who was persuaded to step down.

“Therefore its effectiveness in tackling organised crime and corruption is seriously compromised,” Burger noted. “The implications of the closure of the Scorpions and the placement of the Hawks inside the SAPS itself remain cloudy.”

Talk of specialised units returning

As early as 2009, former police minister Nathi Mthethwa spoke of reviewing the disbandment of the specialised units, but, Burger noted, there was no indication that such a review ever took place. In a speech on 24 November 2010, however, Mthethwa announced that the process of re-establishing the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) units had begun – 176 FCS units were re-launched in April 2011.

Plans to reintroduce an anti-corruption unit only materialised in 2013, when Phiyega spoke at the launch of the Free State crime prevention strategy in July that year. “Ladies and gentlemen, our well-intentioned plans can never come to fruition while corruption thrives in our midst. I am happy to announce that I will soon be launching an Anti-Corruption Unit within the South African Police Service. The aim is to relentlessly pursue corrupt employees within our organisation and to root-out the criminal elements,” said Phiyega.

The police strategic plan for 2014-2019 also speaks of the establishment of an anti-corruption unit. To date there is no sign of the unit, but mention has been made of an inter-departmental task team working on a structure for a more integrated anti-corruption capability.

The Hawks is the only structure within the SAPS which specialises in corruption. Although it manages, prevents, investigates and combats serious organised crime, serious corruption and serious commercial crime, its mandate is limited to the investigation of corruption claims against its own members and other SAPS members with the rank of colonel and above. Corruption by members below the rank of colonel and other SAPS employees is still investigated at station level by ordinary detectives.

In March 2015 police minister Nathi Nhleko announced that a decision had been taken to consider re-introducing specialised “crime fighting units” – although the National Development Plan 2030, approved in 2012, had already recommended the re-establishment of specialised units.

“It would be unreasonable to expect station detectives to have the specialised skills, expertise and experience to investigate all of these varied crimes [such as cybercrime and cable theft], given that they are often perpetrated by expert criminals and crime syndicates,” wrote Burger.

He also stressed that “success in rebuilding the specialised units will depend on whether the SAPS has a professional leadership corps, and is able to plan effectively, consult meaningfully and ultimately drive the implementation of an effective specialised capacity”.