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The number of South African police is declining, but minister gets the figures wrong – and what they represent

While briefing the press on 2022’s first quarter crime statistics, police minister Bheki Cele exaggerated how many police officers had left the force in the past decade. What else did he fudge?

  • The numbers cited by Cele for 2010 are largely correct – there were just under 194,000 SAPS officers, close to Cele’s “195,000”, making for a police to population ratio of 1:258.
  • But the minister exaggerated how many police officers left the force during the 2010s, by between 6,000 and 12,000 officers, depending on whether admin staff are included in the estimate or not. 
  • Despite the concerning decline in the number of SAPS staff, this and police-population ratios are only one way of measuring police capacity, experts say, and may not be the best focus for reducing crime.

With crime statistics from April to June 2022 showing increases in multiple crime categories, South Africa’s policing system has been under sharp scrutiny. The police minister and multiple news articles have pointed to declining police numbers as a major issue. 

In a press briefing in August minister Bheki Cele cited statistics that suggested the South African Police Service (SAPS) had a marked decline in employee numbers over the past decade. 

“In 2010 we had 195,000 members of the South African Police Service … Today we have 176,000.” Cele rounded up by a thousand and said this equalled 20,000 fewer SAPS members in 2022 than in 2010. 

The minister also claimed that while in 2010 the ratio of police to population was one officer for every 250 people, in 2022 the ratio was just one officer to 450 people. 

In Cele’s view, the decline in police numbers meant the country was suffering a “shortage” of police, which needed to be “corrected”.

But are his numbers accurate? And how much do they matter in the grand scheme of things? We looked into it.

Claim

“In 2010 there were 195,000 members of SAPS and now there are 176,000.”

Verdict

Incorrect

The minister’s spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, told Africa Check the statistics had been taken from SAPS’s annual reports. 

For the period 1 April 2010 to 31 March 2011, there were 193,892 SAPS members. A discrepancy of a little over 1,000 could be taken as generous rounding up (from 193,892 to Cele’s 195,000 count), but Cele is off by a greater margin with the more recent data.

Cele claimed that there were 176,000 SAPS members in 2022. But according to the 2020/21 SAPS annual report, which is the latest available data, there were 182,126 members at the end of the financial year. 

In previous statements, Cele has left out administrative staff when citing  SAPS employment statistics. But even with these staff excluded, Cele’s numbers are off. Excluding administrative employees, SAPS reported 160,540 personnel in 2010/11 and 148,060 in 2020/21. 

Africa Check asked Cele’s spokesperson about this discrepancy, but did not receive a response.

Police decline largely due to staff promotion patterns

By either set of figures, what is true is that the number of SAPS members is in decline. 

Africa Check spoke to Gareth Newham, head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and an expert on policing in South Africa. He said that the decline in police numbers is largely a result of a change in promotion policy at SAPS. 

The ISS is a non-profit organisation that aims to improve human security on the continent. Newham and his colleagues recently analysed SAPS data from 2012 to 2020, tracking key trends in the force’s performance, budget and personnel over time. 

They reported that lower-ranking SAPS personnel like sergeants and warrant officers now “receive promotions every four years regardless of their performance”. According to Newham, in 2018 and 2019 more than 42,000 personnel were promoted, increasing the salary bill by R1.2 billion “without improvements in activities or performance”. 

The decline in police numbers was not a result of insufficient funding, according to Newham. In fact, between 2012 and 2020, the SAPS budget increased by 65.5%, from R58.5 billion to R96.8 billion. But due largely to the effect of automatic promotions on the salary bill, SAPS could afford 6% fewer personnel in that period. 

This meant that staff lost due to natural attrition, for example leaving the SAPS to retire or because of personal reasons, could less readily be replaced. Newham said that because most of the SAPS budget was spent on salaries, “the policy of automatic mass promotions has meant they've had to cut personnel costs resulting in fewer officers”. 

He also told Africa Check there had been an increase in personnel leaving SAPS, often “due to dissatisfaction with working conditions from 2012 onwards”. Since 2020 the situation had been compounded by government budget cuts and Covid-related issues, he said.

Cele said at the press briefing that more officers would be recruited in 2022. “This year they’ve given us 10,000 recruits that are at the colleges as we speak. They will be released come December … They’ve promised to give us another 10,000 next year.” 

Newham said that this recruitment “will help somewhat to address the reductions in personnel” 

Claim

“In 2010 the police to population ratio was 1:250, and now it is 1:450.”

Verdict

Incorrect

Cele also cited statistics for police-to-population ratios in South Africa. These ratios are a basic indication of how many people in the country one police officer serves. They are calculated by dividing a country’s total population in a given year by the number of employed police in that year. For example, if a community has one police officer serving 100 people, the ratio is 1:100. 

At the press briefing Cele claimed that the police-to-population ratio in 2010 was one police officer serving 250 people, and that the force had been spread so thinly that the 2022 ratio was more like one officer to 450 people. 

Africa Check calculated the ratios of police to population using SAPS annual reports and Statistics South Africa’s mid-year population estimates for 2010 and 2020. If administrative staff are included when calculating the ratio, Cele is almost correct about the 2010 numbers, with one officer to 258 people. If administrative staff are excluded, the ratio is one officer to 311 people. 

Administrative staff “provide strategic leadership, management and support services” to the SAPS. They are often excluded from police-to-population ratio calculations as they are not police officers permitted to search, arrest and perform other duties “on the ground” for the country’s population.

Cele’s ratio for 2022 is less accurate. Instead of 1:450 as claimed, the ratio is one officer to 327 people. Even when admin staff are excluded, Cele’s ratio is still exaggerated – it is then one officer to 403 people.  

But the focus on police to population ratios may be misguided, experts have previously told Africa Check. Although often seen as an international benchmark for the functioning of an effective police force, experts say that in reality performance likely has little to do with these ratios. 

Cele has cited such ratios before, with varying accuracy, despite experts concluding that there is little evidence for any recommended ratio. 

‘It’s not about numbers, it’s about strategy,’ says policing expert 

According to Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) , numbers of police or police-to-population ratios are not the most relevant indicators. “It’s not about numbers, it's about strategy; it’s about having a clear crime plan,” he told Africa Check. 

Newham pointed to the performance of the Gauteng province SAPS from 2009 to 2011 as an example. With “a clear strategy and a relatively small number of dedicated resources”, including only around 400 officers out of the 34,000 in the province, the force managed to reduce hijacking by a third, home robberies by 20% and robberies of businesses by 19%. 

According to the ISS, this strategy was based on research into successful crime reduction efforts from the United States and Colombia. It involved “focused intelligence” from detective task teams that gathered evidence and ensured there was an increase in reporting robbery cases to the National Prosecuting Authority. The result was, according to the ISS, that “the number of convictions in these crimes increased, and the number of robberies fell”.

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