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South African police minister cites dubious UN standard as he calls for 60,000 more officers

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  • In an interview, South Africa’s minister of police Bheki Cele claimed that the country’s police-population ratio was 1:383, which was significantly short of a UN recommended ratio.

  • The ratio is correct, if administrative staff are excluded from the calculation. But there is little evidence that the UN has ever recommended a specific ratio.

  • Experts say the number of police officers alone will not solve South Africa’s crime problem and quality of policing also matters.

Giving his second state of the nation address in June 2019, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the first step to creating a country where all people feel safe is to “increase police visibility by employing more police women and men”.  

In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation days later, minister of police Bheki Cele reaffirmed Ramaphosa’s call to expand the police force. He said a United Nations standard stated that there should be one police officer for every 220 people in the country. 

“[In] South Africa at the present moment we are one to 383,” he said. He gave this figure as 193,000 officers. To make the ratio 1:220, Cele said “we are 60,000 down”.  

Do his numbers add up? And does the UN have a recommended ratio?


One police officer serves 383 people in South Africa



The police-population ratio shows the number of police officers serving a community. For example, if a community has one police officer serving 100 people, the ratio is 1:100. 

Africa Check spoke to the minister’s spokesperson, Reneilwe Serero, who said the ratio was a “simple calculation” based on the number of people living in South Africa and the number of police officers. “If you take into account that we only have 193,000 in our network, it then gives you a ratio of one police officer to 383 people.”

The most recent population estimate for South Africa is 57.7 million in mid-2018, by Statistics South Africa. According to the police’s latest annual report, there were 193,297 total employees in the department as at March 2018. Based on this figure the ratio is 1:298 - not the 383 cited by Cele. 

Ratio correct if admin staff excluded

However, included in the police’s staff are 42,470 public service act employees who provide organisational and administrative support to the police.

The UN defines police personnel as “those whose principal functions are the prevention, detection and investigation of crime and the apprehension of alleged offenders”. 

Andrew Faull, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), referred Africa Check to a criminal justice assessment toolkit by the UN Office on Crime and Drugs. The toolkit highlights the difference between “sworn staff” (police officers who have the power to arrest and search) and “un-sworn” staff (who typically perform administrative and support functions). 

If the public service act employees are excluded from the calculation, then the ratio is one police officer to 383 people. (Note: Serero told Africa Check she would confirm whether the calculation excluded administrative staff. We will update this report should she do so. However, from the numbers cited, it appears administrative staff were excluded). 

Cele’s police-population ratio of 1:383 is therefore mostly correct, if administrative staff are excluded. But does it fall short of the UN standard?


The UN recommends a police-population ratio of one police officer to 220 people



Cele’s spokesperson Reneilwe Serero told Africa Check that information on the UN’s recommended police ratio could be found on the “UN’s website”. But we couldn’t find the 1:220 ratio listed anywhere.

It is a ratio that is often cited in many countries, and it varies a lot. In 2017 Africa Check investigated a similar claim, when Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta claimed that one police officer serves every 390 of his citizens. This, Kenyatta said, was against a UN recommendation of 1:450.

In Nigeria, while seeking more personnel, a police chief in May 2017 gave it as 1:400. 

The UN did not respond to our queries about if they have any ratio. However, we managed to trace the often-cited ratio back to the United States’ policing of occupied Germany in 1945. Back then one American policeman oversaw 450 German civilians. Its success at the time has tended to inform international policing, with the ratio being passed down from one UN document to another over the years. 

The Institute for Security Studies has also tried to trace down the origins of the ratio. 

“That concept has been used since I can remember,” Lizette Lancaster, manager of the institute's crime and justice information hub, told Africa Check. 

“Perhaps a ratio did exist somewhere on some website at some stage. How it was calculated, I don’t know, but it’s been taken as fact for years.”

Recommended ratio may not be helpful

Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, told Africa Check that he didn’t believe a UN recommended ratio existed. 

“I doubt that agreement on such a number would be possible. I am not sure where the numbers that are used come from, but for them to carry ‘official status’ they would need to have been included in the UN standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice. They are not there,” said Shaw.

“Even if such a number existed, I don’t think it would be particularly helpful.” 

He said that while the number of police is an important factor, it is also necessary to consider what the police do and how they are trained.

“I don’t think it is wrong to debate the numbers of police but it should be combined with a discussion of how overall policing can be improved.” 

Lancaster also argued that the number of police in itself is not going to reduce crime. “We know that South Africa is quite unique, we have very high violent crime rates. In certain areas we know there is a dire need for more police officers.”

“But police need to be deployed where it matters the most, we need more targeted policing, and better trained police officers.” 


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