16 January 2012

Lost and stolen firearms within SAPS a major cause for concern

According to materials released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) to the South African History Archive (SAHA) under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, the problem of lost and stolen firearms is rampant amongst police detachments across the country.

The statistics that were released suggest that 18,196 police firearms have been lost or stolen during the 5 year period beginning 1 April 2005 and ending on 31 March 2011.

The sheer volume of the missing weapons, shocking as it may be, is perhaps not the most worrisome trend revealed by the statistics. The concentration of missing weapons in particular regions and police stations show that systemic checks and balances designed to prevent the loss or theft of police firearms have not reached all corners of South Africa.

The Northern Cape had 232 firearms lost or stolen over the course of the five years, making it the province with the fewest missing weapons. Comparatively, Gauteng Province saw 6,163 firearms go missing over the same period. Certainly, the difference in population between these provinces accounts for a portion of the large discrepancy. However, the fact that over 2,700 weapons went missing in Gauteng in a single year (2006/2007) is hair-raising.

While many of South Africa's police stations have lost 10 or fewer firearms over the 5 year period, nearly 20 stations have lost in excess of 100 weapons in a single year. For example, one police station in Umtata in the Eastern Cape had 638 firearms go missing in 2008/2009. The same station lost a total of 2 firearms during the other four years of the five year period.

Beyond the patently obvious safety implications that are associated with more than 18,000 unaccounted for firearms in South Africa from police stations alone, the financial consequences for SAPS are monumental as well. In materials that were released to SAHA under a separate request for information, the average cost of replacing a pistol exceeded R 5,000 between the 2006/2007 year and 2010/2011. No exact figure was provided on the total value of pistols lost or stolen. However, when these documents are read together, it appears that the cost of replacing every missing weapon would exceed R 90 million.

Despite a reduction in the number of missing firearms to 1,335 in 2010/2011 from 3,814 one year earlier, the dilemma presented by missing firearms in South Africa represents a crisis that puts the safety and well-being of South Africans at risk. It is deserving of attention from both elected officials and members of the police force in order to bring about a much-needed change in both policy and practice.

Copies of the released documents are availalbe in the SAHA archive:

Freedom of Information Programme Collection: AL2878_B01.7.8

Freedom of Information Programme Collection: AL2878_B01.7.9