After tyranny, how can we rebuild trust?

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner demand police reform. Could South Africa provide a model for improving community-police relations in the US?

Annie Karreth
7 April 2015
Police outside Ferguson Police Department, November 2014. Demotix/Bryan Sutter. All rights reserved.

Police outside Ferguson Police Department, November 2014. Demotix/Bryan Sutter. All rights reserved.The massive popular protests that followed the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have brought attention to questions of police reform in the United States. In debating how the US should restructure law enforcement institutions to decrease violence and increase accountability, we can look to the implementation of programmes in other countries that have attempted reform. South Africa – a nation grappling with contemporary racial divisions and a historical legacy of institutional racism – provides such a model.

An institution of tyranny

After transitioning to democracy in 1994, South Africa established community-policing institutions that helped law enforcement gain the trust of a citizenry that had viewed the police as the militarized and illegitimate hands of the apartheid state. In many ways, the South African case is fundamentally different from the problem of police abuse in the US. Police brutality in South Africa was condoned, if not endorsed, by the apartheid state. And the scale of human rights violations committed on the part of the South African Police Service (SAPS) was wide-ranging and profound, making a comparison to police violence in the US difficult.  Nonetheless, Americans can draw valuable lessons from successful police reform in a nation that confronted much tougher challenges in repairing community-police relations.

Transforming law enforcement was at the top of the governance reform agenda of the new democratic South Africa.  By 1994, the South African Police Service held very little institutional legitimacy in the eyes of the public, as they had been the ruthless executors of the apartheid system.  Established by the ruling National Party (NP) in 1948, apartheid was a racialized economic, political, and legal order, intended to secure access to social benefits, economic opportunities, political power and resources for white South Africans, while limiting or denying access to such goods for non-white citizens. Moreover, the system was designed to ensure that the labour of non-whites (and, in particular, black South Africans) was made available to white producers.  

Apartheid legislation embraced population registration, job reservation, land tenure, geographic segregation and pass laws, as well as the disenfranchisement of non-white South Africans.  Maintaining such an order required an institution that could secure the complete subjugation of non-whites through coercion and force.  By and large, these coercive measures were carried out by the South African police forces.

During the 40 years of white rule, the South African police force implemented apartheid’s laws with brutal force.  Non-white South Africans were subjected to sustained violence at the hands of an institution whose modus operandi was “terror, designed to promote utter and complete submission.” The police force’s methods of control included torture and deliberate killings, operating both within and outside the legal rules of the system.  To understand the scale of police violence, official records are telling.  In 1985 alone, 512 African adults and 187 African juveniles were killed in police shootings.  Such numbers do not account for killings not recorded in official registers.  As black resistance to the apartheid system increased in the late 1980s, police violence only escalated.

Police brutality in South Africa came to the world’s attention after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the 1976 Soweto uprising, in which hundreds of black protesters were killed during violent clashes with the police.  But apart from these bloody episodes, apartheid was characterized by an everyday violence and intimidation that non-whites experienced at the hands of the SAPS.  Many South Africans recall the police force patrolling the townships of Guateng with bright yellow Casspirs, a land-mine-protected infantry mobility vehicle initially designed as ambush defense for the South African National Defense Force in the Angolan Bush War conflict.  The use of such military equipment underscores the role of SAPS in maintaining a segregated police state, where casual brutality and human rights violations were routine.


When the architecture of Apartheid was dismantled in 1994, the brutal legacy of police violence remained. It was clear that the institutions of law enforcement would need to be radically transformed in a new, non-racial and democratic South Africa. The transformation began with a constitutional amendment.  The drafters of South Africa’s Interim Constitution designed a new model for law enforcement that centred on the establishment of Community Policing Forums at the provincial and local level.  

CPFs are community-based organizations that exist in the police sectors of each municipality throughout South Africa’s nine provinces.  Provincial-level institutions were also established to oversee the municipal forums.  CPFs were designed to act as a conduit between the police and the community and have been tasked with developing programmes that foster a working relationship between law enforcement and communities for the purpose of enhancing public safety.  Such programmes include monthly safety meetings, victim-empowerment sessions, neighbourhood watch sub-forums, youth anti-truancy workshops, and a range of community-building projects.

These forums have been successful in transforming political relationships at the local level.  During the apartheid regime the highly militarized policing institutions had become, effectively, illegitimate.  The Community Policing Forums allowed the institutions of law enforcement to gain the trust of South African communities by building working relationships.  The forums provide a space for law enforcement to deliver information to citizens regarding neighbourhood crime and for citizens to address their concerns.  But it also provides a forum by which citizens can help law enforcement prevent crime or arrest offenders by providing information unknown to the police.  In this way, CPFs help improve contact between the police and the communities they serve by establishing the institutional base for a cooperative partnership.

These institutions were not created in a vacuum.  Other actors have been heavily involved in the design, establishment and maintenance of CPFs, including local and international non-governmental organizations. Within local communities, NGOs have provided the skills, information and conflict mediation that have been necessary for the survival of CPFs. In this way, NGOs have played a pivotal role in implementing the framework for community policing that was put forth in the Interim Constitution.

Despite its success in opening lines of communication between law enforcement and the citizenry, the community-policing model has had its share of challenges in South Africa.  Some have argued that the effectiveness of CPFs is too dependent on the income level of the communities in which they are implemented. In other words, community policing has been less effectual in poor neighbourhoods, where citizens have fewer resources to participate in such efforts. Others argue that power struggles within communities have decreased citizen support for CPFs in some neighbourhoods. These challenges are significant and suggest that police reform will only be successful in the long run if it coincides with other institutional changes that address deep inequalities between South African communities.  

Nonetheless, CPFs have played an important role in promoting reconciliation between citizens and law enforcement in post-apartheid South Africa. They have helped the South African Police forces gain the trust of the communities they serve by creating space for communication and active engagement. With a working partnership in place, the South African model of policing has been transformed. Pakiso Rakgoadi notes: “The primary objective of enforcing law and order has been replaced by the provision of safety and security to all communities that the South African Police Services (SAPS) serve.” On the most fundamental level, CPFs have played a role in forging a new democratic South Africa by helping to transform the relationship between the public and the state at the local level and solidifying South Africa’s commitment to upholding human rights in the post-apartheid era.

Lessons for the US

Could South Africa’s Community Police Forums provide a model for improving community-police relations in the US? In many ways, the US and South African cases are hardly comparable. In apartheid South Africa, law enforcement became the executor of a state-sponsored terror campaign. The human rights abuses committed by the police were sanctioned by a state that sought to maintain an institutional system of racialized segregation and disenfranchisement. The scale of violence committed by the South African Police Service was astounding and its execution was methodical and systematic.  

Even as we recognize the troubled persistence and pervasiveness of police violence in the United States, human rights violations on the part of law enforcement were significantly more extensive in apartheid-era South Africa than anything contemporary American municipalities have experienced. In fact, police reform in South Africa was such a salient need that it became a top agenda item in the post-apartheid administration of Nelson Mandela and part of a larger programme of restorative justice associated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

That being said, the current state of community-police relations in some cities in the United States is not entirely unlike the condition of community-police relations across South Africa in 1994. In many US cities, especially those with high percentages of minorities, citizens fundamentally distrust law enforcement.  For instance, a recent Gallup poll found that nearly 60 percent of white Americans have confidence that their local police will protect and serve them, while only 37 percent of black Americans do. The source of this mistrust is manifold.  It originates in the historical dynamics of race-relations in America. It originates in encounters with excessive use of force on the part of the police.  And it originates in a lack of accountability of police officers that have been accused of such abuses.  

Mistrust is compounded by perceptions of inefficacy, as communities feel politically powerless to change this state of affairs.  And it is aggravated by the use of military-grade equipment to quell the pockets of resistance that have emerged in recent months.  In many of these cities, citizens have begun to question the very legitimacy of law enforcement.  These same problems existed in South Africa in 1994 and their origins, though contextually different, were similar.  They were addressed – and, in many ways, ameliorated – with concerted efforts at police reform and the kind of institutional changes that Community Police Forums exemplify.  As such, South Africa provides a model for an institutional solution to problems in the US that have existed for decades, but have lately resurfaced with a sense of urgency.

Many have suggested that solutions to problems in Ferguson, Missouri lie in changing the racial composition of both the police department and city council leadership, which are heavily dominated by whites in a city that is over 60 percent African-American. Following the 1992 riots over the acquittal of police officers accused in the Rodney King beating, the city of Los Angeles undertook such reforms. In its racial composition the LA police department now reflects the community it protects, in that 45 percent of personnel are Hispanic and 13 percent are African-American.  

Changing the demographic composition of police departments to reflect the people they serve is a necessary reform in racially divided municipalities. It will undoubtedly increase confidence in law enforcement among minorities and, in general, help to broaden social equality in our communities.  But such a reform may not be sufficient to mend deep-seated distrust of police in some neighbourhoods.  Bridging these divides may require a new paradigm of community policing in ethnically divided communities, one in which law enforcement maintains a working relationship with the citizenry.

Community policing could start with the establishment of CPFs that would serve as an institutional conduit between neighbourhoods and local police stations.  These forums have the potential to open much-needed lines of communication, increase the professionalism of the police force, and create a mechanism of accountability for law enforcement conduct.  In addition, CPFs would help to empower communities that have been affected by police violence by providing an institutional voice to the citizenry.  Finally, CPFs have the potential to increase the effectiveness of local law enforcement, as communities can provide information necessary to combat crimes if they are given opportunities to participate in public safety initiatives.

Implementing this kind of reform will prove more difficult in the US than it was in South Africa.  While South Africa is a unitary state with a national police force, the US is a federal system comprising multiple levels of police jurisdiction. This fragmented system inhibits the creation of a coordinated national system of Community Police Forums with regional and municipal level branches. Police reform in the United States, then, will most likely be a decentralized and piecemeal effort. However, municipalities would be wise to consider implementing community policing forums, especially in diverse, urban areas with high incidents of police violence. They can look to reform in multi-ethnic South Africa as a model of community policing that helped rebuild broken trust between the police and the citizens they serve.

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