Top listeners:

skip_previous skip_next
00:00 00:00
playlist_play chevron_left

Business / Economics

South Africa’s security forces once brutally entrenched apartheid. It’s been a rocky road to reform

todayApril 22, 2024 8

share close



By Sandy Africa, University of Pretoria


One of the important tasks that faced South Africa’s democratic government after 1994 was to reform the apartheid-era security apparatus.

The African National Congress (ANC), which was voted into power, had a laudable vision in the 1990s for reforming the police, military and intelligence services. Determined that South Africans would never again be subject to the brutality of the security forces, it ensured that the core principles it stood for were written into the country’s democratic constitution.

Putting the vision and principles into practice, however, has not been easy, and fraught with setbacks. Over time, the abuse of power, a lack of proper oversight, corruption, and neglect of the capacity needs of the security services have robbed them of the legitimacy gained at the start of the democratic era. South Africa is plagued by high crime rates. People feel unsafe, a far cry from what was meant to be.

I served in one of the ANC teams formulating negotiating positions for the reform of the security sector in the 1990s. Since then, I have researched the governance of the security sector in South Africa and the African continent, over three decades.

Negotiating a secure future

Under apartheid, the security forces were instruments of repression. They enforced notorious security legislation directed against opponents. Death squads in the apartheid police and military abducted and assassinated scores of government opponents.

The then South African Defence Force’s regular raids into neighbouring countries, in pursuit of liberation fighters, created instability in the region.

Mounting international pressure, and a popular uprising inside the country, created volatile conditions. These led FW de Klerk, apartheid’s last president, to declare sweeping measures that laid the basis for the negotiations to end apartheid in the early 1990s.

Including discussion on the future of the security sector in the negotiations was a political victory for the ANC. In the beginning, senior apartheid-era cabinet ministers were at pains to assure their constituencies that there was no way that the armed wings of the liberation movements would be part of the future defence force. In the end the future of the security sector became one of the most important matters around which agreement was reached.

Multiple statutory and non-statutory forces were merged into a coherent security sector. The combatants of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC; the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, that of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania; and the apartheid military were brought under single command structures.

The fragmented defence, police and intelligence structures of the apartheid system included those of the 10 nominally independent and self-governing ethnic “homelands”.

The peace dividend

The new representative parliament dominated by the ANC managed to push through important reforms.

The establishment and mandates of the police, defence force and intelligence services were clearly defined by new acts passed by parliament. The new defence force, for example, was only allowed to operate domestically in support of and at the request of another security agency.

Liberation movement fighters who were not absorbed into the new security services were demobilised and given a gratuity to start living a civilian life.

The new constitution forbade members of the security forces from obeying any manifestly illegal instructions.

Post-apartheid South Africa joined the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1994. This paved the way for peaceful relations with its neighbours. It also laid the basis for formal inter-state defence and security cooperation.

The new security dispensation broke down apartheid barriers, including gender discrimination. Women in the new South African National Defence Force were allowed to engage in direct operational roles for the first time. This was to be a great advantage when South African forces were deployed as peacekeepers. Women soldiers enabled the peacekeepers to communicate with communities and win their trust.

A festering issue has been the treatment of military veterans of the former liberation movements who did not qualify for integration. Many felt marginalised and forgotten. It was only in 2009 that a Department of Defence and Military Veterans was established to regulate how the state could acknowledge veterans.

Oversight of the security sector

One important reform was the institution of several layers of oversight over the security services. The constitution requires that they be subjected to multi-party parliamentary oversight. The aim is to ensure they are not manipulated to further partisan political agendas.

The White Paper on Intelligence (1994), adopted by parliament, provided the policy framework for the post-apartheid intelligence services legislation. It proposed the establishment of a parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on intelligence, as well as the appointment of the Inspectors-General of Intelligence to monitor compliance of the intelligence services with the law.

A White Paper on Defence (1996) reflected a vision of a new defence force. The policy framework carefully spelt out that the military would be subject to civilian oversight.

In 1998, a White Paper on Safety and Security redefined the role of the police. It identified multiple drivers of the high crime rate, and recognised the need for an overhaul of the 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy. It also envisaged a greater engagement between communities and the police, and called for a civilian secretariat to support the police minister in policy-making.

Many of the early efforts aimed at transforming the security sector took place under the aegis of a Government of National Unity. Nelson Mandela was president, and FW de Klerk his deputy. As a concession, De Klerk chaired the all-important Cabinet Committee for Security and Intelligence. Eventually the Government of National Unity collapsed in 1996, because the National Party felt its own influence was waning. But by this time important reforms had been set in motion, and the changes were irreversible.

The reforms in South Africa’s security sector in the 1990s coincided with the reshaping of the global political order after the end of the Cold War. The new government found itself playing a role in conflict resolution and peace-building in Africa and beyond. The country was influential in shaping debates about security sector reform. Its own experiences were held up as a model of what was possible.

The country’s relatively strong economic position and its new moral authority enabled it to mediate conflicts on the continent. This, and a peacekeeping role, gave the defence force a prominent stature.


Over time, the fortunes of South Africa’s security services, and how they were perceived by the public, have been shaped by several failures and shortcomings:

  • Persistent high rates of violent crime. Better-off citizens have been able to retreat behind high walls and hire private security services. Poorer South Africans feel the brunt of the state’s inability to counter crime effectively. Of late, police are resorting more readily to deadly force when apprehending suspects. This raises concerns about whether society’s tolerance of police violence is growing, out of frustration.
  • Senior military figures and ANC politicians were implicated in scandals around the lucrative 1999 contracts to upgrade military equipment. The scandal harmed the image of the defence force.
  • The erstwhile National Intelligence Agency and its successor, the State Security Agency, meddled in party politics and violated citizens’ rights to privacy.
  • The structures that are supposed to provide executive and parliamentary oversight have been at times sluggish in ensuring good governance, proper management of resources, and effective implementation of security decisions. Hence, policy responses appear uncoordinated and misaligned. Important debates about the reform and future of the security sector are muted.
  • In July 2021, South Africa experienced violent civil unrest that left over 400 people dead and caused billions of rands’ damage to property. The police struggled to contain the situation. An external panel that I chaired concluded that serious intelligence failure prevented them from anticipating the scale of the violence.

Governance and accountability

The security services that watch over South Africans 30 years into democracy are a far cry from the instruments of minority rule of the apartheid era. They are subject to the constitution and the rule of law.

Far too many instances of corruption and unethical conduct tarnish the reputation of the security services. However, there are many exemplary individuals and units, and acts of selfless service.

The weak point of South Africa’s democracy has been the failure of the state to guarantee a sense of prosperity, belonging and well-being for all.

The roots of insecurity lie in the persistently unequal society, where poverty and unemployment are rife and opportunities for social mobility are limited. No amount of policing or armed force can address that. There is also a political economy of organised crime, and a host of emerging threats. These require a more robust response and greater capacity in the security services.

It is thus understandable that there has been frustration about the slow pace of reforming the security institutions. There have been important developments, though. The 2018 Review Panel on the State Security Agency, for example, made important recommendations about accountability in the intelligence services.

Some of the recommendations have finally made their way into the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill of 2024. The bill and the state capture commission’s recommendations provide benchmarks for improving governance and accountability in the security sector.

These legislative changes have come about because South Africans are starting to realise the importance of vigilance over the security services.The Conversation

Sandy Africa, Associate Professor, Political Sciences, and Deputy Dean Teaching and Learning (Humanities), University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Written by: Contributed

Rate it

Post comments (0)

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *