SAPS relocation practices place young officers’ lives at risk

Thulani Ngwenya
Thulani Ngwenya
Image: supplied

Young police recruits may unknowingly find themselves living with dangerous criminals for the first few months of their employment due to one major oversight in the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) relocation practices: any officer can be assigned to any region in SA at any time.

For inexperienced constables fresh out of the academy, some as young as 18 years old, this means finding their own way in a place or province to which they’ve never been, with little to no assistance from the SAPS.

By contrast, more experienced, established officers have the option to live in state-provided lodging for three months when relocated more than 50km from their home — ample time to settle in, explore, and find suitable and safe long-term accommodation.

But new recruits do not receive the same treatment.

Every year, when the new batch of recruits are assigned and sent across the country, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) receives a flood of complaints and requests for assistance by young police officers who have been uprooted and now find themselves living in dangerous situations.

The risks of living in hostile neighbourhoods

When assigned to provinces they know little to nothing about, new and inexperienced officers need to rely on phone calls or the internet to find housing.

They often sign contracts before they’re able to travel to the region, seeing their new homes for the first time just days before their new assignment begins.

Being unfamiliar with the area, the community, and crime hotspots, they then find themselves living in dangerous areas among the very criminals they are expected to track down and arrest.

Gang violence in particular is a very real and serious cause for concern in many townships and city centres across the country.

A young officer living in an unsafe area may be targeted, and woken up by criminals, or possibly even their landlord, telling them to hand over their firearm.

With their life at risk, they may have no other option but to comply.

New officers will only discover the lay of the land and understand the dangers associated with each area after several months of living there, and after receiving advice from more established colleagues regarding better housing alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that government provide safe housing options for police graduates in the short-term.

Relocation expenses vs limited salaries

Another issue is that newly assigned officers may not have the funds to make the cross-country move and find accommodation in safer neighbourhoods.

Officers cannot rely on their first salary, which they will only receive a month after they’ve already moved in, while the R4,500 stipend received during their training period isn’t nearly enough to cover their expenses.

These young men and women simply do not have the savings to pay for deposits and first months’ rent in safer areas.

In fact, it can take at least three months before their finances begin to stabilise and they’re able to make the move.

During this time, they must also pay for food, clothes, and transport between their house and the police department.

If the housing they found online or over the phone is not close to the department, it becomes far more expensive.

It is also not uncommon for new officers to have a family to care for, whether that means sending money back home every month or even moving their family with them to a different province.

This can be prohibitively expensive.

The solution for safer police recruits

The answer to these challenges is simple: house new recruits in a police barracks for their first 24 or even 36 months of service.

This will provide them with time to adjust, learn the environment, and save the funds needed to move into their own homes.

Then if, for example, after six months they decide to move, they will be free to do so.

This will empower officers to make informed decisions regarding their housing without facing unnecessary time pressure or financial pressure.

It will also ensure they are safe and comfortable as they embark on their new profession, leaving them better able to focus on learning the ropes in their new environments.

Popcru calls on government to provide the necessary accommodation in police barracks for new recruits, and to help better safeguard and support our next generations of law enforcement officers.

Thulani Ngwenya, Popcru president



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