Ballsy acting national police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi has defied the government and taken the Richard Mdluli saga seriously, finally succeeding in suspending the former crime intelligence boss on the weekend. The move may give the president a pretty good reason to shift Mkhwanazi, but there’s a lesson to be learned here.
Each of the five points on the SAPS star represents a different responsibility to the public. Police must ensure the safety and security of all, uphold each person’s constitutional rights, co-operate with communities, respect the needs of victims, and commit to public accountability. Lieutenant-General Mkhwanazi would have seen these commitments on many station walls.
He signed off on Mdluli’s suspension last week, despite political attempts to protect the former crime intelligence boss. Mdluli received the notification of intention by email last week after difficulty contacting him. An official suspension letter was delivered to his lawyer Ike Motloung over the weekend.
Mdluli is now banned from entering SAPS premises and has to return his cellphone, state vehicle, laptop and keys.
The pressure to act increased almost two weeks ago when Freedom Under Law launched a court interdict to prevent Mdluli from performing any policing duties. FUL’s affidavit outlined evidence of political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority’s withdrawal of charges against Mdluli.
Dr Mamphela Ramphele from FUL told iMaverick she has no doubt it influenced the suspension. “People were wringing their hands in horror but once the application was launched we saw action. People who felt powerless started expressing themselves.”
Ramphele said the application should teach South Africans about their responsibility as citizens. “This application and the reaction to it shows that we have the power to hold those in power accountable.”
Mkhwanazi was always uncomfortable with Mdluli’s reinstatement and even admitted political interference was involved. “That which emerged from the murder inquest prompted the acting national commissioner to act,” said police spokesman Lindela Mashigo on Sunday. “Serious allegations have emerged and he could not sit back and pretend to be blind.”
Mdluli was suspended last year after being arrested for the alleged involvement in the murder of his former lover’s husband, Oupa Ramogibe. He was also charged with abusing a secret services account.
All charges were subsequently withdrawn and he was reinstated. Intense public pressure and accusations of political interference saw police minister Nathi Mthethwa try to sideline the issue by shifting Mdluli sideways and launching an inquiry into an alleged conspiracy against him.
Mdluli reportedly offered to help President Jacob Zuma win the ANC elective conference in Mangaung, which was denied by both men. He was to receive increased surveillance powers that would have assisted him had he wanted to monitor Zuma’s challengers.
Despite a public outcry over the issue, the ANC refused to acknowledge its importance. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said last week: “Why should it be elevated to a national question?”
But it was the national response that pressured Mkhwanazi to act and he’ll soon set a date for an inquiry into the allegations against Mdluli. Criminal charges may follow.
“I can’t guarantee what is likely to follow,” said Ramphele, who will return to court if Mdluli is reinstated. “All I can say is the court application and the outcome is a vindication of the power of citizens to hold those in authority accountable. Often citizens feel powerless that they can’t do anything about the violation of trust of those in authority.”
That power will need to be summoned more than once. Gareth Newham of the Institute of Security Studies says the problem goes far beyond the former head of crime intelligence.
“This is one small step in a much bigger process. It was critical to suspend him, given the evidence,” he said. “It was absolutely astounding that people were trying to protect him… People at the highest levels of the NPA are acting outside of their constitutional duty.”
Newham said top NPA and SAPS jobs go to appointees without sufficient credentials or integrity. After defying the politicians, the acting national police commissioner is likely to be replaced with a more malleable candidate.
In a statement titled “Will Mdluli’s suspension be Mkhwanazi’s downfall?” DA shadow minister for police Dianne Kohler Barnard called the suspension “possibly the most heroic move of his now shortened career in this position”.
She says Mkhwanazi will be removed for his boldness, a sign the government doesn’t take the fight against crime seriously. Minister Mthethwa’s spokesman, Zweli Mnisi, declined to comment on internal matters of the SAPS.
But the government has reason to get rid of Mkhwanazi. “There’s hard evidence that (Mthethwa) benefited from a slush fund,” said Newham. And if the president was involved in Mdluli’s return, he’ll want a new police commissioner as soon as possible.
The inquiry into suspended police commissioner Bheki Cele has found he’s unfit to be South Africa’s top cop. The Mail & Guardian predicts the director general of the labour department, Nkosinathi Nhleko, who fell out with Thabo Mbeki and is from KwaZulu-Natal, will take the job.
“The appointment of advocate Nhleko, another career politician with no experience in the police, would be beyond disastrous,” said Kohler Barnard, after praising Mkhwanazi’s response to reports that officials abused a slush fund.
But Mkhwanazi himself was a gamble, a 38-year-old cop who’s been trained in bomb disposal, emergency diving and special task force operations. He knows his responsibilities to the public, which is why he won’t keep the job. Sadly, his responsibility isn’t only to the public. By now he must know the expectation to also protect his political bosses.
Retaining him is too risky. He might help expose Mdluli’s backers and may not co-operate with any extracurricular requests ahead of Mangaung. Zuma has continually tried to put allies in positions of power in the police and NPA – Cele, Willem Heath, Menzi Simelane, to name but a few – and the new police commissioner should be no different.
In all likelihood, an ANC cadre aligned to Zuma will pin the SAPS star over his party Polo shirt with only partial commitment to the responsibilities each point represents. In an election year, a career cop would be too dangerous.
But the president will have to be careful because, as Ramphele says: “We have the power to hold those in power accountable.” DM
- Police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi: SA’s great balls of fire in Daily Maverick.
- Richard Mdluli: the tipping point in Daily Maverick.
- With Mdluli shift, Zuma steps away from the ledge. Again. in Daily Maverick.
Photo: Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi / Richard Mdluli. Lisa Hnatowicz/Foto 24/Bongiwe Gumede/foto 24.