The rolling protest action over Brett Murray’s controversial The Spear painting looks set to intensify this week as more ANC-aligned organisations pledge to participate in the mass march to the Goodman Gallery on Tuesday. With all eyes on the gallery, President Jacob Zuma may buy time to ponder what to do about the cursed police service. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY
Ordinarily, this was going to be a bad week for the president. With the coincidence of the leak of a damning report by the board of inquiry into national police commissioner Bheki Cele’s conduct and the second suspension of former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, Zuma would have had to confront the crisis in police management.
As things stand, the protest action over the defaced The Spear painting looks set to be the only show in town with outrage mounting and momentum building in support of Zuma’s court action to have the artwork banned.
While there is yet no new court date for Zuma and the ANC’s urgent application to have the painting permanently removed from the Goodman Gallery and the City Press website, a march to the gallery on Tuesday is likely to translate into a mass show of support. Since the court proceedings were postponed last Thursday, the furore over The Spear has developed a life of its own.
On Saturday, a march against the painting in Durban, attended by one of Zuma’s wives, whipped up emotions in Zuma’s home province with copies of City Press – which first carried pictures of the artwork in its print edition and still has the image on its website – burnt by enraged Zuma supporters.
The congress of the National Union of Mineworkers on the East Rand this week was also marked by impassioned opposition to the painting, with ANC and alliance leaders using the platform to lambaste the artist and City Press.
With Zuma again cast as a political victim and now transformed into the embodiment of white people’s disrespect of black bodies, the nation’s attention has been deflected from burning issues on the national agenda to the growing rumpus over the painting.
And its timing couldn't have been better: had City Press not reported on the Hail to the Thief ll exhibition at the Goodman Gallery, which featured The Spear painting, or if ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu’s attention had not been drawn to the picture in the paper, Zuma would have been forced to confront the meltdown in the South African Police Service.
This is an issue the president would rather not deal with – mostly because he appears not to know what to do about the convulsions in the senior management of the police and because he probably has himself to blame the most for the state it is in.
It is an open secret in the ANC that the security cluster is Zuma’s baby. During the formation of his administration in 2009, Zuma consulted many senior leaders in the ANC and the alliance on Cabinet and others strategic appointments in his government. The SACP and Cosatu were even invited to make recommendations for posts – which is how Ebrahim Patel and Rob Davies landed the economic development and trade and industry portfolios.
But the security cluster, they were told, was off limits. Because of Zuma’s experience as head of ANC intelligence and because so much had gone horribly wrong in the security agencies under Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, Zuma wanted to appoint people he trusted and for whom he could personally vouch.
When Zuma retained police minister Nathi Mthethwa and state security minister Siyabonga Cwele in the posts they were hastily appointed into by Kgalema Motlanthe after Mbeki’s recall, it caught many people by surprise. Neither of them were particularly close to Zuma and neither had much experience with security issues.
Both Mthethwa and Cwele embarked on a massive cleanout in their departments of people they perceived to have been loyal to Mbeki. Because there is no scientific method to measure loyalty – especially in security agencies which are complex by their very nature – this process was sweeping and extremely damaging to the operations and culture of the security sector.
Mthethwa and Cwele then began to fall out with people they felt were imposed on them by Zuma. In the case of the head of the National Intelligence Agency, Gibson Njenje, and South African Secret Service head Moe Shaik, Zuma was asked to choose between the ministers and his trusted former ANC spooks. Njenje and Shaik are both still shocked by the choice Zuma made.
Of all the appointments in the security agencies, Zuma took the longest to appoint a national police commissioner after Jackie Selebi’s contract ran out while he was on trial for corruption. Cele, the former safety and security MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, was the only person outside the police who was in contention for the job – other names being touted were career policemen but Zuma wanted someone who’s political allegiance was beyond doubt.
Zuma appeared to be initially in doubt over Cele’s appointment. He knew all too well that Cele had a reputation for being hot-headed and reckless – not the ideal qualities you want in the person in charge of 190,000 armed police officers. Cele’s confrontational nature had led to many dangerous standoffs with the Inkatha Freedom Party, which Zuma himself sometimes had to defuse.
In the end, Zuma did settle for Cele – mostly because he couldn’t come up with an alternate candidate who would be loyal to him and remotely appropriate for the post. It was always going to be a decision that would blow up in his face.
Mdluli’s irregular appointment as head of crime intelligence was even stranger, considering that he appeared to have no known relationship with Zuma. Mdluli was an apartheid era policeman who had not in any way distinguished himself in the ANC government to warrant such high office.
With no leadership pedigree, sudden access to millions of rands of state funds and the dizzying powers to conduct surveillance on anyone he wanted to, Mdluli began to make big mistakes. He also thought he could earn his stripes in the ANC and cement his loyalty to Zuma by conducting political operations against various leaders in the organisation.
His activities set him on a collision course with a number of senior officers within the police service, some of whom do have the struggle credentials he so desires. But Mdluli appears to have won Zuma and Mthethwa’s favour over people like Hawks boss Anwa Dramat and Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros, who are now accused of plotting against him and are being subjected to a task team investigation headed by the chief state law advisor Enver Daniels.
It remains to be seen whether Mdluli’s squandering of the state secret service account had served more political purposes than has been exposed. With Mdluli now implicated in a range of serious allegations, it is becoming more and more difficult for Zuma and Mthethwa to give him political protection – particularly with the acting police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi steadfast in his mission to purge the rot.
There is also growing civil society outrage against Zuma and Mthethwa’s handling of the Mdluli matter, with lobby group Freedom Under Law applying for an urgent interdict to prevent Mdluli from performing any functions in the police. With the presidency already wrapped up in numerous court actions, this application by some of South Africa’s top academics and legal minds is the last thing Zuma needs to turn up the heat on the Mdluli pressure cooker.
This week Mkhwanazi again suspended Mdluli in connection with allegations that had emerged from the ongoing court inquest into the murder of Mdluli's former lover's husband in 1999. Mkhwanazi is still in pursuit of Mdluli on the misuse of the secret service fund, the purchase of luxury vehicles and the hiring of family members, but has not managed to pin him down on those allegations as yet.
Now the board of inquiry investigating Cele’s fitness to hold office has found that he was “dishonest” and called on Zuma to fire him. The Sunday Times quotes a senior civil servant in Zuma’s office as saying: “It is a sensitive matter, one that the president would have to consider carefully before taking action. My sense is that he is not going to rush into making a decision, but you never know.”
If Zuma delays in firing Cele, Mkhwanazi will stay in his job and continue hounding Mdluli out of the police service and exposing his misdemeanours. If Zuma fires Cele, he has to find a new police commissioner, and apparently there are not many capable crime fighters with a strong devotion to the president in the job market.
The rumour mill has it that Zuma wants to appoint labour director-general Nkosinathi Nhleko as the new police commissioner. If Zuma does appoint Nhleko, it would again be on the basis of loyalty rather than ability and experience in crime fighting.
Thanks to The Spear, Zuma has some time to ponder his decision – possibly one that will not again leave him as exposed as the painting does. DM