The worst job in South Africa is up for grabs again. General Bheki “Stomach In, Chest Out” Cele will soon have to hand back his custom-designed police uniform and go back to wearing his swanky threads and hats full time. The two people who are in the running for the position are extreme opposites – one a tough combatant, the other a zealous party hack. Or President Jacob Zuma could surprise us all. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Three years after scouring around to find an appropriate candidate for the position of national police commissioner and settling for Bheki Cele, the president is faced with one of the most crucial appointments of his presidency.
In a month of high drama in the SA Police Service, “reliable sources” have confirmed to virtually all South African media that Cele is being put to pasture. Zuma will now have to appoint his successor.
The choice of South Africa’s fourth post-democracy national police commissioner will not be an easy one. General George Fivaz was appointed by former president Nelson Mandela in 1995 to amalgamate the 11 policing agencies that existed at the time and to configure a new police service in line with the new constitutional principles.
Jackie Selebi was the first political appointment into the post and it was clear this was a tactical move by former president Thabo Mbeki to ensure that one of his most trusted comrades occupied the strategic post. But with Selebi having no experience in crime fighting, he was unable to provide the leadership needed to combat the rocketing crime levels during his tenure.
After the infamous fall of Selebi, Cele gave the police service an image makeover with a gung-ho approach to crime fighting. Though crime statistics reflected a level of success to Cele’s approach, his flamboyant character soon landed him in hot water. When Cele was suspended pending a board of inquiry into the police building-lease scandal, the low-intensity war in the upper echelons of the police ministry and management exploded in public.
The SA Police Service is now a battlefield of infighting and political wrangling, and has been unable to stabilise ever since its senior management was caught up in the Zuma-Mbeki power battle.
The spectre of suspended crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli is currently at the centre of the conflict and he has now plunged the police service into an unmitigated crisis. As the status of the various investigations into Mdluli’s illicit activities, as well as his employment, remains uncertain, he has become the most despised figure in South Africa.
This is primarily because of Mdluli’s perceived invincibility and the brazen manner in which he allegedly committed the crimes of which he is accused. He also appears to enjoy inexplicable political protection from Zuma and police minister Nathi Mthethwa, which has affected the power dynamic in the police hierarchy.
Enter the dragon-slayer: Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi.
It will always remain a mystery as to why Zuma chose Mkhwanazi as acting national police commissioner above at least 20 more qualified people for the position. But whatever the reason, Mkhwanazi, a highly trained former task force head, tackled the position as if it were a tactical operation in enemy territory.
Staving off heavy political pressure, Mkhwanazi is on a mission to keep Mdluli off police property while the litany of allegations against him are investigated. He is also resolute in trying to purge corrupt cops from the police service and to stop the turbulence in senior management.
On Thursday night, Mkhwanazi came out fighting to counter allegations that he authorised a spending spree of R35-million from the crime intelligence secret service account. Independent Newspapers reported on Thursday that a secret report was to be handed to Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence, detailing the irregular spending on luxury vehicles.
In a surprise move, the media-shy acting police commissioner addressed an emergency media briefing, rubbishing the allegations and warning of a dirty tricks campaign to discredit him. It is rare for the police to move so swiftly to counter media reports and, with just an hour and a half’s notice, it would have been difficult for anyone higher up to pull the plug on the briefing.
It appears to be no coincidence that the report emerged to coincide with the news of Cele’s axing and Wednesday’s ruling by the North Gauteng High Court to grant an application by lobby group Freedom Under Law prohibiting Mdluli from performing any police duties.
With Mkhwanazi having rattled so many cages in less than eight months in the job, and being averse to executive interference, it is apparent that moves are being made to ensure he does not stay in the job permanently.
But in a calculated counter-manoeuvre, Mkhwanazi made it public on Thursday night that there are people plotting against him and cautioned that more scandalous stories are likely to be circulated.
It is clear that he will not go down or away without a fight. According to sources close to him, he is not opposed to staying in the job, despite the hell-ride since his appointment last October.
However, Mkhwanazi is not even 40 and, if he continues to butt heads with his political principals, he may be forced out of the police service altogether. His safest bet would be to go back quietly to specialised operations and wait for the dust to settle.
The country, however, never got to experience Mkhwanazi’s capacity to fight crime during his spell in the hot seat. He has been so caught up with the internal management disputes and administrative wrangling that his proficiency as a tactical operative has not been put to the test.
As things stand, the police service is operating mechanically. While normal police functions continue at station level, planned operations targeting special types of crime are at a minimum and there are virtually no intelligence- collection operations. Morale is at an all-time low. Until a permanent national commissioner and crime intelligence head are appointed, it will be impossible to address the dysfunction.
For several weeks now, rumours have circulated that labour director-general Nathi Nhleko is favoured by Zuma for the position of national police commissioner. Nhleko, a former ANC chief whip in Parliament, was apparently first considered for the position in 2009 but Zuma eventually opted for Cele.
Another candidate hailing from Zuma’s home province, Nhleko was a fierce supporter of the president during his trials, particularly after he fell out with Mbeki while he was in Parliament. If Nhleko is appointed, Zuma would essentially duplicate Mbeki’s move with Selebi – a trusted comrade with no policing experience.
The other option open to Zuma would be to seek a new candidate. However, he will have great difficulty recruiting someone who is not a party loyalist and would be willing to work with Nathi Mthethwa. Within and outside the police service, it is well known that Mthethwa is prone to interference in operational matters and would not respect the authority of the police commissioner unless he is made to.
Current generals such as Gauteng provincial commissioner Mzwandile Petros and former senior officers who could ordinarily be up for the position will therefore be reluctant to accept it as long as Mthethwa remains the political head of the department.
Whoever Zuma chooses, this is a big test that will have great repercussions for the future of his presidency. It will signal whether he is making decisions in the best interests of the country or himself, and whether he will be able to restore credibility and functionality to the police service.
Most of the security departments are currently without heads and this situation is extremely hazardous for the safety and integrity of the country. If Zuma can get the police commissioner appointment right, he stands a chance of attracting experienced and competent people to the intelligence agencies so that he can begin to reassemble his by now collapsed security and intelligence team.
If he gets it wrong, his presidency will be an even greater failure than it is now. DM
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Photo: President Jacob Zuma faces one of the toughest decisions of his presidency. (REUTERS)