The South African Police Service (SAPS) that we are familiar with today has its origin after the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1902. Prior to the war each colony or Boer republic had its own law enforcement organisation. With the outbreak of the war in 1899 the Transvaal and Orange Free State police forces were called to active service in the Boer army, while the Cape Mounted Riflemen and Mounted Police, and the Natal Mounted Police were called to support the British.

In September 1900 Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the British forces, ordered Major General Baden-Powell develop a scheme for a Constabulary Force in the Transvaal and Orange Free State (OFS) that could begin to function in 1901, as he expected the war to be over by then. The police force would be divided into 4 divisions, 3 for the Transvaal and 1 for the OFS, but would not be responsible for everyday policing, as they would be taking part in the conflict.

At the cessation of hostilities, the Johannesburg and Pretoria areas were under the jurisdiction of the Transvaal Town Police, with the South African Constabulary (SAC) responsible for rural areas. These units were broken up in 1908 and replaced by the Transvaal and Orange River Police forces. With unification on 31 May 1910, colonial and city forces were still serving the country, but plans for a unified police service for the whole country were drawn up.

A conference between the police commissioners from all 4 provinces was called in August 1910, and a Draft Police Bill and regulations were drawn up for the Union. Colonel T. G. Truter, former commissioner of police in the Transvaal, was made commissioner of the new South African Union police force, with deputy commissioners servicing several other forces, like detectives, who reported to Truter. He also became Accounting Officer for the force in 1911, gaining financial control over the police force.

Theodorus Truter, the first Police Commissioner for the SAP. Source: Potgieter, D. J. (ed)(1974). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa Vol. 8, Cape Town: Nasou, p. 632.

By the end of 1911 the police force was being restructured and divided into 2 forces namely the South African Police (SAP) and the South African Mounted Riflemen (SAMR). The first group would function normally under the Police Act, as police officers, and in war they would be conscripted according to the Defence Act, while the SAMR would be a regular military force with police duties during times of peace, especially in Black areas.

In 1911 General J. B. M. Hertzog, the Minister of Justice, took the Police Bill to its second reading. It was passed to the next year as it was closely tied with the Defense Bill that was still being prepared. In 1913 the Defense Act was passed and on 31 December of the same year authorisation for the establishment of a police force was given.


On 1 April 1913, shortly after the establishment of the SAP, a miners’ strike erupted on the Witwatersrand. The police force was still being restructured and when negotiations broke down, around 19 000 miners took part in mass action that turned violent on 5 July 1913. The SAP could not handle the situation alone and the military were called in. By the end of August police officers returned to their stations, but in November reinforcements had to be sent to Natal to suppress the Indian Passive Resistance campaign. In January 1914 another strike, this time mainly involving railways and mines, swept through the Witwatersrand, and officers from all over the country had to be deployed. Military assistance helped to again quell the labour action.

In 1922 the Rand Rebellion erupted with Witwatersrand gold-miners striking in revolutionary fashion. A number of police stations were taken over by miners, with police officers captured and besieged in Fordsburg and Brixton. Many of the miners had served in the First World War and had extensive military experience, preventing the police from restoring order until the Active Citizen Force was called into action.

The First World War

With the outbreak of the war the SAMR were called to service and the SAP assumed their responsibilities. 957 police officers were also assigned to the Defense Force for active duty, in the course of which 73 were killed.

Responsibilities and duties

In 1927, after the SAMR had been disbanded, the SAP took over the Pietermaritzburg and then the Durban (1936) areas. After this all duties excluding those of the South African Railway Police and the South African Military Police Corps became the responsibility of the SAP. On 1 June 1939 South West Africa (now Namibia) also fell under SAP jurisdiction. In 1978 another serious restructuring took place and the police force was separated into 18 divisions, with 80 districts and 1 040 police stations.

South African riot police during Apartheid in the 1950’s. Source:

The most important and serious duties of any police force is to uphold the law and to main law and order. The force has to investigate crimes, protect life and property and take responsibility for the official duties assigned to it. In order to fulfill these duties SAP officers should have a comprehensive knowledge of the country’s legal system and undergo thorough training in all aspects of the job, which is continued throughout their service. Recruits are assigned to departments that suit their skills or talents.

During the 1970’s the most industrious division within the SAP was the Criminal Investigation Department, which was divided into sub-departments covering commerce, diamonds, gold, house-breaking and theft, murder and robbery, internal security, drug-running, prostitution, drink and gambling. Over the years these divisions have been renamed or restructured to suit the social and criminal environment of the country.

South African riot police during Apartheid in the 1980’s. Source:

A finger printing office was established in Pietermaritzburg in 1900, a year before Britain’s Scotland Yard followed suit, and by 1925 several offices had mushroomed, necessitating the creation of the South African Criminal Bureau. This organisation employed experts on firearms, fingerprints, handwriting, photography and medicine and in 1954 developed its own compound for lifting fingerprints from objects. It was also the first in the world to use colour photography for police purposes and kept a record of every convicted criminal in the country.

The South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) also contributed to the services of the police through conducting all scientific investigations and by setting up forensic investigation services.

The Security Branch was responsible for internal security, specifically regarding sabotage, other subversive activities and Communism, and was used extremely efficiently during the Apartheid years to repress anti-government organisations. Their actions during events like the Sharpeville Massacre and Soweto Uprisings are testament to their campaign of fear and violence.

The canine division has also contributed enormously to the functions of the SAP by assisting in solving many cases. South African police dogs have also been popular abroad and in Africa and were purchased by police forces in Eritrea, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, India and Palestine. Unfortunately, they were used brutally against civilians by many apartheid handlers, and became yet another instrument of oppression.

Military functions

Under the Defense Act in 1913, the SAP was assigned specific powers with regard to national defense. Part of the police force could be directed towards national protection and with the consolidation of the Police Act in 1958 the situation remained unchanged. This meant that by world standards, the SAP’s duties exceed normal police duties and are both civil and military. This opened the way for the force to be an arm of the apartheid regime in countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and Tanzania, as it. participated in the destabilisation of southern Africa.

Female police officers fulfill the same functions as their male counterparts in South Africa. ©:

The Police Reserve

The SAP has always relied on civil society for support in its actions and after outbursts of resistance to government suppression in the 1960’s, Minster of Justice, B. J. Vorster created a reserve police force to assist the police in their regular duties when officers had to take care of other essential services. Legislation to cover this was soon passed and recruiting began in earnest.

Women in the SAP

Women were enlisted into the SAP for the first time on 1 January 1972 and on 1 March 102 women started their basic training at the police College in Pretoria. Initially female officers were used in the uniformed branch in charge offices, as investigators or as radio operators. Today SAPS employs women in the same capacity as men.


Potgieter, D. J. (ed)(1974). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa Vol. 8, Cape Town: Nasou.|South African Police official website

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