As South Africa celebrates National Police Day, gender activists say police continue to fail women and children by turning them away when they want to report assaults.
Police continue to fail victims of domestic and gender-based violence (GBV), despite positive strides made in policy development for policing, according to the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSMSA).
Wednesday, 27 January, marked South Africa’s 16th National Police Day, a day set aside for the South African Police Service (Saps) to remember the sacrifices made by the police officers towards the safety of civilians. But those speaking for the women and children in civil society used the day to highlight the challenges and shortcomings of the police service as trends following the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak magnified existing patterns of destruction in the system.
The NSMSA’s National Shelter Helpline said it had numerous reports regarding issues of poor service delivery from Saps since taking its first call nearly two months ago.
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According to Mariam Mangera, project coordinator of NSMSA, the problems were largely the result of what appears to be police officers passing the buck, rather than effectively dealing with domestic violence cases that are brought to their attention.
“The police have to follow certain protocols when cases of GBV are reported to them. Some police stations are equipped with a family violence, child protection, and sexual offences [FCS] unit, with trained forensic social workers responding to these cases which helps facilitate cases better.”
With many Saps stations currently without an FCS unit, police officers reluctant to take on GBV cases were apparently using this as an excuse to turn victims away. This went against national instructions on how officers should respond to GBV.
Officers who did this were in contravention of the Domestic Violence Act, according to gender-equity activist, Mo Senne, who started a campaign to rectify this, called #TrainthemAll.
The campaign is aimed at pressuring government to give all members of the police service adequate training on gender based violence, a requisite which had only partially been met and not nearly enough to meet the population’s needs.
“Members of the police service also face a lot of challenges,” said Senne. “They don’t get adequate psychosocial services when they are put through traumatic and dangerous situations every day. They are short-staffed and these are some of the roots of their inability to do their job. There are simply not enough policemen for our population.”
In a television interview last year, Police Minister Bheki Cele said South Africa did not meet the standard ratio of officer to civilian set by the United Nations at 1:200. South Africa was instead lagging at 1:383.
However, independent fact checking organisation, Africa Check, found that the country’s officer to civilian ratio is actually 1:298. In addition, there is no actual recommended United Nations.
The NSMSA marked National Police Day with a statement pointing out the defective dynamics between the police and society, and how they affected victims of domestic violence and GBV. The police have a long way to go when it comes how they treat those who run to them for help, reporting cases of domestic and intimate partner violence, and how they were being kept safe.
Despite the country finally having a national plan on GBV, positive changes had yet to be experienced. The Gender-based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan (GBVF-NSP) was produced by the Interim Steering Committee established in April 2019. It was set up in response to the gender-based violence and femicide crisis in the country following the historic 2018 Presidential Summit on this subject.
As police stations across the country continue to operate without rape kits, Senne said the ineptitude of Saps also lay in the larger problem of corruption and mismanagement.
This perpetuates more GBV by leaving victims at the mercy of perpetrators who are sure to repeat their crimes under a porous policing system. The police’s forensic services were reportedly crumbling under financial pressure and on the brink of collapse, a legacy of the former police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane, who allegedly looted millions from the unit when he was in charge of it.
Speaking to Parliament in November last year, Cele blamed the unit’s continued bad performance on ongoing investigations into senior managers as well as the “terrible” management of contracts.
Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that Africa Check supported the minister’s statement in part and that it found an officer to civilian ratio of 1:289. Africa Check found the statement to be untrue and that the country’s ratio is 1:298. We apologise for the error.
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