The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) is concerned that highly-skilled and specialised members of the Special Task Force and National Intervention Unit divisions are exiting these units at an alarming rate, leaving the country’s borders vulnerable and posing a significant risk to safety and security.

POPCRU president Thulani Ngwenya says that the SAPS skills drain is now reaching critical levels as members retire or leave the service for better paying positions in the private sector.

“This represents a serious threat to our national security as our most skilled officers are leaving faster than we can train replacements,” Ngwenya says. “Law enforcement is already understaffed and underequipped, and this exodus from specialised divisions means that we cannot properly deal with serious crimes that fall beyond the scope of classic policing.

“While private security firms are luring away our highly-trained personnel with lucrative offers, our country has been left vulnerable to security breaches,” he adds. “Additionally, the migration of some of our most experienced and valuable officers to the private sector is not only weakening our law enforcement capabilities, but also undermining the principle of state responsibility for protecting all citizens.”

Active police numbers across the SAPS have been unsatisfactory for years. For example, the total number of officers fell by 17 470 in the decade between 2012 and 2022, as revealed by the Annual Performance Plan for the 2023/2024 period. Meanwhile, the country’s population grew by more than 8-million people during that time.

Despite the recent addition of new police recruits, Ngwenya notes that years of neglect means that there will be a gap in terms of suitably experienced personnel to replace those retiring. This will disproportionately impact specialised units which have substantially higher appointment requirements.

“Even if the SAPS trains and hires the 10 000 new recruits pledged by government this year, this will have little immediate impact on higher-level crimes,” he says. “Dealing with these crimes requires the abilities of far more experienced officers who take years to train and upskill to reach their positions.”

Moreover, the skilled and highly trained Special Task Force members are jumping ship for better salaries in private security companieswhere they are employed as bodyguards for individuals such as taxi bosses and the wealthy, Ngwenya continues.

“This is very dangerous as private security should not outnumber police in any country,” he adds. “It is not correct that private security’s numbers are stronger than the state’s because private security’s concern is for the rich people who can pay for their services, not for the poor or for protecting our communities.

“The responsibility for protecting the country cannot be privatised – it must remain in the hands of the state in accordance with our Constitution.”

POPCRU says it has solutions to these challenges, but requires political and administrative will from government to implement its proposals.

For example, due to the limitations in the SAPS’ current promotion structures many members feel that there is little recognition for performance, or room in the organisation for their career growth. By comparison, private security work often offers better hours, working environments, and salaries.

POPCRU has therefore advocated for changes to the SAPS’ organisational and promotion model to allow for better upward mobility – especially for those seeking to join the Special Task Force and National Intervention Unit ranks. These include setting stronger and clearer guidelines for promotions to senior positions based on skill and experience.

Next, government can offer highly trained and experienced special forces officers better financial incentives that correspond to the work they do and the risks they face – such as increasing their danger allowance from R6 000 to R20 000 per month.

Considering the two-year length and difficulty of the training programme, coupled with a considerably low pass rate, POPCRU further advocates for successful Special Task Force candidates to receive the rank of colonel once finished. This will provide an additional incentive for more officers to join the programme.

Finally, training costs for each of these highly skilled officers amount to over R1-million over the two-year period. To ensure that this investment does not go to waste, POPCRU recommends contracting them to serve the state for a period of 10 years following their training.

“Only once their service period is complete should they be allowed to leave the department for the private sector, taking their experience with them,” says Ngwenya. “This would ensure that the SAPS recoups its investment and keeps its most valuable officers for longer.

“This, in turn, will allow law enforcement to better address criminal activity and allow enough time to train officers to take their place rather than being given a few months.”