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South Africa’s police recruitment drive based on dubious UN standard

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South African police minister Bheki Cele continues to justify increased police hiring by using a United Nations “standard” that cannot be traced.

“The international standard, according to [the] United Nations, [is that] the ratio of policing should be one is to 220,” he said during a budget speech in July 2019. “In South Africa we are one to 383. We are almost doubled. So that’s why then we are increasing the intake of the members.”

He made similar comments in a TV interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation in June 2019.

Africa Check went looking for the United Nations’ ratio - and has been searching for more than two years - but found no evidence that it exists. 

Current ratio correct if admin staff excluded

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. 

Based on figures from Statistics South Africa’s most recent population estimate and the police’s latest annual report, the ratio is 1:383 as Cele said - but only if administrative staff are excluded from the calculation. (Note: Read our full report for a detailed breakdown of the calculation.

But does this fall short of a UN standard?

Cele’s spokesperson, Reneilwe Serero, previously 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, or any other, listed anywhere.

Recommended ratio may not be helpful

This is not the first time Africa Check has come across a “UN recommendation” for police ratios. It was quoted by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017 as a ratio of 1:450. In May of that year, a Nigerian police chief said it was 1:400.   

The UN did not respond to our queries about the existence of a ratio. But we traced the ratio back to the United States’ policing of occupied Germany in 1945. Back then one US police officer oversaw 450 German civilians. Over the years, the ratio has been passed down from one UN document to another. 

Africa Check also spoke to three experts who doubted the existence of a recommended ratio. And they argued that even if one did exist, it would not be helpful. 

“I doubt that agreement on such a number would be possible. I am not sure where the numbers that are used come from,” Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, previously told Africa Check. 

Gareth Newman, who focuses on governance, crime and justice at the Institute for Security Studies, in 2017 told Africa Check he doubted it was an international directive.

“I would be surprised if there was such a recommendation given the substantial difference in the capabilities and functions of the police across the world. It would therefore not make much sense to give a particular figure,” he said. 


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