How the police used to be run

Jan de Klerk explains how recruitment, promotion, training and discipline functioned in old SAP

Crime figures in South Africa are raising eyebrows for almost two decades now. With every release of crime statistics, the same questions about SAPS effectiveness and efficiency are raised and the same rhetorical replies about new plans, strategies and commitment are repeated by the minister and his pawns.

On such occasions comparisons are made between the former SAP and SAPS with the former SAP always beating the latter by a head. Given the 80-year bureaucratic structure of the SAP and the less than three decades structure of the SAPS, one should question the fairness of the comparison.

The benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of the South African Police Force (SAP) was enacted in section 5 of the (repealed) Police Act 7 of 1958;

(a) the preservation of the internal security of the Republic;

(b) the maintenance of law and order;

(c) the investigation of any offence or alleged offence; and

(d) the prevention of crime.

To meet these expectations the SAP, which was established in 1913 has developed and evolved over a period of 80 years. The result was a remarkable effective organization given the toxic political environment in which it was expected to perform its mandate.


Before 1947 the South African Police academic admission requirement was standard six but, in 1947 it was raised to standard 10 (Grade 12). Recruits with standard 8 were accepted if they pass the admission tests in advance.

In 1964 the admission requirements were improved to meet the needs of the period. Recruits were required to be between 16 years and 35 years old, be at least 5 foot 6 inches tall and have a breast measure of 34 inches. He had to be free of mental and body defects, be healthy and be suitable for police service and provide proof of good behavior.


In 1947 with the institutional change from SAP Training Depot to the South African Police College, the new syllabus incorporated restrained but crucial academic material.

Police training here did not operate in a vacuum. Example, in 1948 Major HJ du Plooy (later commissioner of police) was sent on a three-month policing training course to the United Kingdom where he had the opportunity to interact with international experts. This type of enhanced international training was quite common before independence in 1961.

In 1960 the University of South Africa adapted a diplomatic course and introduced a three-year Diploma course specifically for South African police officers.

In 1961 South African police training underwent another considerable transformation. Recruits could obtain a senior certificate from Department of Education with a syllabus comprising Afrikaans, English, Common Law, Criminal Procedure, Criminology, Ethnography, Statutory law and Investigation of crime. Training was extended to 12 months.

The instructors were screened and they were assisted by full-time officials from the Department of Education, Art and Science. The following syllabus was followed:

Basic disciplinary training that includes parade and ceremonial drill. Also, physical exercise including self-defense, boxing, wrestling, swimming and other physical sports. These sports were aimed to develop restrained use of violence, to prepare recruits for actual attack situations in the field. Musketry and the proper use of various firearms prepared and trained recruits in the dangers of the unique power of the police to take lives.

Academic subjects included Common Law, Criminal law, Criminal Procedure, Investigation of Crime and Force administration, Criminology, Anthropology, community relationships, English and Afrikaans. (only two apartheid laws were fleetingly dealt with, the Group Areas Act and the Mixed Marriages Act – in a total of 30 minutes over 6-month period.)

The law subjects were very specific and targeted on the most common crimes. Very little room for interpretation was allowed. The definition of the different crimes and its elements formed an important facet of the academic syllabus. Individual officers had to identify a crime or offence without hesitation and be able to take corrective action to gain the trust and confidence of the public.

The course focused on a straightforward, holistic disciplined career and lifestyle. The importance of discipline, confidence, expertise and presence were emphasized at every available opportunity during the entire course.

In 1913 police training in South Africa started out as a militaristic styled training facility and was developed and evolved over a period of 80 as a police training college adapted to serve and protect the unique South African demographics.

After training, a member of the force constantly attended lectures in order to him keeping up with all aspects of his work.


Promotion in the SAP was done after successful submission of promotion exams. The curriculum was prescribed by the commissioner.

The exams were rather intense and few members passed the exam at the first attempt. Participants had to write all eight subjects in the examination period to succeed and the candidates had to write two subjects on a day. In this way the candidates were scrutinized and only the most dedicated and zealous were passed.

Initially (1964) after serving as constable for at least 3 years a member could, with the commissioner’s approval compete in a promotion exam to the rank of sergeant, provided that such a member can only be promoted if he is older than 21 years.

After 2 years as sergeant, he can participate in an exam for promotion to warrant officer. A warrant officer must serve in the rank for 1 year before sitting in an exam for promotion to lieutenant.

A member of the force could reach the officer rank within 10 years. Once a member has reached the officer’s rank, his promotion depended on merit and initiative. Although a chronological log of officers in the different ranks did exist, promotion was decided by an SAP Promotions Board who was guided by institutional needs and resource availability to make rational promotion decisions. The appointment was ratified by the Prime Minister (later the President).

The rationale for promotion was based on work performance, character and suitability to promote the effectiveness of the SAP. Suitability of spouses was included in the selection process.

Executive ranks (brigadier and generals) were appointed by the Prime Minister (later President) on recommendation of the Promotion Board and the commissioner of police.

A need for a more professionalized SAP was identified and since the early 1970’s there was a movement towards a theoretical framework to encourage philosophical research into policing with specific focus on the South African context.

The BA Police Science course was initiated at the University of South Africa. Many members completed the degreed course while a great number continued with an Honors, Magister and Doctorate.

Members, who did not sit for exams, were not promoted. They had to wait until they had eighteen years of service (with a clean behavior record) before they could be eligible for promotion. This method of promotion was often frowned upon by colleagues.


Policing requires a disciplined approach so that public confidence and reassurance is maintained. The SAP had a strong discipline code to maintain the integrity of the organization and the laws it maintained.

To this effect the rank hierarchy was committed to regular and systematic inspections of all facets in the organization. Every detail of equipment, procedures and human resources were subjected to daily (often three times in 24 hours), weekly, monthly and annual inspections. The primary purpose of management was operational leadership, guidance but most important, thorough inspections.

In the event of any contravention of an instruction, force order, regulation of act an immediate investigation was required into the circumstances and the offender had to be identified (not too difficult in such severely controlled environment).

Investigations were held upon discovery of a dent in a police vehicle, a missing firearm cartridge, neglected (including unkept) police equipment and many more. There was no excuse for abuse of government assets – replacement meant wasted resources. Government assets were expensive, policemen came free of charge (!)

The offender was charged and a disciplinary hearing was convened with a commissioned officer presiding and an experienced officer as prosecutor. Due to the thoroughness of the inspections and the detailed investigation the offender was soon convicted. Punishment could be a penalty, reduction in salary, demotion in rank or in severe cases, immediate dismissal. Very few police officers could afford a lawyer to construe a defence besides, representation was an unthinkable sin against the management who were served with blind loyalty and pride.

Appeals were allowed but due to the thoroughness very few appeals were successful.

Sentences were confirmed by an executive manager, usually with a juridical background at regional level.

The decay set in

In 1989 it was clear that a political settlement is needed to solve the country’s unfair racial policies.

"A junior commissioned officer of the SAP, Lieutenant Gregory Rockman went on a crusade to discredit the SAP leadership and focus on perceived discrimination in the SAP. He formed a police union which at that stage was unheard of and illegal. The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) was only recognized in 1993 and was as such, an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). COSATU is a member of the Tripartite Alliance which is an alliance between the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP)."

Another union, The South African Policing Union (SAPU) was established in November 1993 for the more “moderate” members of the SAP.

The following year a former trade unionist, Sydney Mufamadi became minister of Safety and Security and it goes without saying that the formation of police unions was welcomed in the political arena.

Pressure groups, led by the Tripartite Alliance, discredited and blamed the SAP for all the sins of the ideological alchemists in parliament. Also, every Homeland had its own policing agency, and the eleven police agencies had to be incorporated in one police agency.

It was decided that the police service, as every aspect of society, should reflect the demographics of the country. Soon it was clear that the Alliance cadres destined to manage the new police agency do not have the knowledge or experience nor the discipline to be incorporated into the existing police bureaucracy. It was time to insisted on a complete overhaul of the policing function under auspices of a democratic police for a democratic New South Africa. Negotiators for the New South Africa embarked on a mission to reinvent the policing wheel.

Suddenly the country was saturated with national and international “policing experts” and consultants. The large number of police inquiries, conferences and research projects came with large sums of international donor funds. Developmental aid was brought to bear on a wide front. It targeted many layers of the police organization and to varying degrees it brought political credibility, financial assistance, modern technology and technical expertise to the police agency.

By the mid-1990s the model of community policing, with its emphasis on social partnerships and organisational decentralisation, had become the preferred policing model to replace the SAP.

Confusion and frustration reigns

In 1996 the South African Police Services Act came into being and brought hope for a “democratic” police service.

The functions of the SAPS were enacted in the Constitution (Act 108/1996) section 205

sub-section (3) The objects of the police service are to prevent, combat and investigate crime, to maintain public order, to protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic and their property, and to uphold and enforce the law.

However, in view of the Bill of Rights, the Police Services Act now leaves important loopholes for police officers:

Section 13.

(1) Subject to the Constitution and with due regard to the fundamental rights of every person, a member may exercise such powers and shall perform such duties and functions as are by law conferred on or assigned to a police official.

(3) (a) A member who is obliged to perform an official duty, shall, with due regard to his or her powers, duties and functions, perform such duty in a manner that is reasonable in the circumstances.

This section leaves itself for interpretation and is often used by officers to neglect their function.

Police management, most likely earlier members of the unions, have a snug relationship with the unions. Police training, promotion, conditions of employment and salary increases are now negotiated and agreed to in the bargaining councils.

A police officer has no motivation for improving qualifications as this is no guarantee for promoting his career. They are trapped in the lower ranks of SAPS without any forecast promotion. They also trapped in poverty at the lowest compensation levels for countless years. (This may be a cause for high levels of corruption.)

The training syllabi are registered in line with the National Qualification Framework. As example:

The National Certificate: SAQA Qaul ID 20496 National Certificate for Policing will equip the new police officer with skills knowledge and experience to:

· Balance constitutional and legal rights of individuals with the competence to legally infringe those rights in the service of maintaining a safe and secure society.

· Prevent crime by conducting patrols.

· Support a criminal investigation by gathering initial information and evidence of a crime and attend to court duties by giving evidence.

· Prioritise and conduct an armed response to reported crimes.

· Conduct a lawful arrest.

· Safeguard, transport and release prisoners in detention.

· Conduct oneself in a professional manner that delivers quality service to the community.

· Conduct themselves as effective members of a policing team.

· Monitor, reflect and improve their own practices.

Very little about the definition or elements of crimes are entertained in the initial training program. There is little interaction or coordination between the five institutions accredited to offer the course, thereby leaving the topics open for interpretation.

The new police officer is left uncertain about his role in crime prevention and would rather do nothing than making a mistake. Even experienced officers are not familiar and current with the laws of the country. Higher levels of education are offered by a larger number of accredited institutions, exacerbating the coordination problem.

Unions are allowed to threaten and influence decision making by grievances and discipline. Union members meet at disciplinary trials and intimidate witnesses. Officers are simply afraid of possible bogus complaints that members of the unions may make against them and the former expire into apathy. Officers do not get any support from their seniors and become the subject of grievances and false complaints themselves.

In periods of conflict with top managers - who usually are not members of the union -mid-level officers must choose between their duty to obey the top managers and their loyalty to the union; usually they choose the latter. 

The inspection function of the management has all but disappeared in favour of apathy towards government assets. Besides, lack of financial control has seen police vehicles left unserviceable due to smooth tires, stolen batteries or generally unroadworthy conditions.


Bureaucracy can be effective because it helps organisations run smoothly and effectively. It streamlines processes, bring order to systems and processes, make management easier and encourage training. It also makes the organization predictable and consistent. However, it takes time, experience and effort to develop.

In their wisdom, the police experts and specialists of the 90’s chose to scrap the highly effective 80-year-old police bureaucracy wheel. They designed a dysfunctional wheel from scratch to accommodate the country’s new race laws. Most South Africans will agree, the experiment failed.

Instead, it would have made more sense to address the policing challenge where it matters – at the spot where the wheel interacts with society. With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been more sensible to fit a new democratic tire on the strong bureaucratic wheel with the prevailing benefits of command, control, discipline and merit. However, this would have interfered with the racial laws of the new regime.

Jan de Klerk, Police Scientist


Levin, Benjamin. What’s Wrong with Police Unions? University of Colorado Law School, 2020

Gouws, Zirk. SAPS : Interne faktore wat dienslewering beinvloed, Solidariteit in Nonngqai Vol 8 No 4

Van der Spuy, Elrena. South African Police Reform in the 1990’s : Internal Processes and External Influences, University of Cape Town , 2005

South African Qualifications Authority, https://www.saqa.org.za/