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With murder and other crimes on the rise in South Africa, better responses to violence and crime are urgently needed. Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis believes a step in this direction is to devolve more law enforcement powers to local government. He is calling for Police Minister Bheki Cele to devolve such functions to the city administration.

Cape Town has focused on strengthening its capacity to address crime. It has invested in new technology to optimise responses to crime and other crises by its law enforcement personnel and emergency services. A recent analysis by Jean Redpath, Senior Researcher at the University of the Western Cape’s Dullah Omar Institute, suggests that a Cape Town-based initiative involving the targeted deployment of new policing personnel reduces murder in parts of the city.

Hill-Lewis wants Cape Town’s Metro Police to be given powers to investigate crime. He has also requested that the metropolitan government be granted more authority to determine policing priorities in the city.

Some reorganisation of South Africa’s policing system is clearly desirable, especially if this can be done in a manner compatible with the country’s constitution.

Municipalities’ policing powers can be expanded, if this is provided for in legislation

Government agencies responsible for service delivery typically emphasise the need for standardised systems and find it difficult to innovate. The size and complexity of the South African Police Service (SAPS), and weaknesses in government policy direction on policing have also fed into the stagnation of general law enforcement.

Section 205(1) of the constitution says that the SAPS may be ‘structured to function’ not only in the national and provincial spheres of government but also in the local sphere. This implies that municipalities’ policing-related powers could be expanded if this is provided for in legislation.

A new report released this week by the Institute for Security Studies and the South African Local Government Association motivates for considering the devolution of policing powers to metropolitan government level. The report recommends that ‘in line with Section 205(1), structures and systems should be established to enable consolidated coordination of SAPS law enforcement and crime prevention activities in metropolitan areas.’

Such structures should ensure that responses to violence and crime are strategically focused, including coordinating ‘SAPS activities in metropolitan areas with those of metro police and other metropolitan government personnel involved in law enforcement,’ the report says.

A one-size-fits-all approach to local government and policing is neither desirable nor required

If municipalities were given greater policing powers, this could be subject to the proviso that only those conforming to minimum criteria are eligible. Clean municipal audits for a minimum of five years might be one criterion. To minimise political abuse of the police, provision should be made for a high level of transparency on directives given to police by local governments.

The report also suggests that policing powers exercised by metropolitan governments be subsidiary powers, carried out in a manner compatible with national policing priorities determined by the police minister.

Government must give greater attention to how municipalities – particularly those that are run more effectively – can take on new functions that help them deal with crime and violence. Giving selected metros more authority over policing could expand their scope for innovation and lesson learning. This in turn, may help get South Africa’s policing system out of the rut it’s currently in.

Cape Town – which has proven its ability to develop strategic and collaborative approaches to addressing crime – is one place where innovation and adaptation seem possible. Lessons learnt there, and in other municipalities that try new methods, could be incorporated into broader crime prevention strategies.


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