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1 September 2014 22:58 (South Africa)
South Africa

Bheki Cele: Zuma's rock, hard and complicated place

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
ranjeni zuma cele

President Jacob Zuma has learnt that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle once it’s out. The fate of suspended police commissioner Bheki Cele is now a hot political potato and Zuma is clearly in a dilemma on how to proceed. But then breaking up is always... complicated, especially in the Year of Mangaung. RANJENI MUNUSAMY untangles the Gordian knot.

For someone who is about to get fired by the president and who stands to lose substantial perks, including a salary in excess of R1.3-million, a R4.2-million house and access to police aircraft in which to zoot around, suspended police commissioner Bheki Cele doesn’t seem too bothered.

Daily Maverick sources say on Saturday night Cele partied up a storm at the popular Cubana nightspot in Morningside, Durban, dancing with the female patrons and assuring those who asked how he was doing that he was still in top form. He also told them he would hold a press conference this week to announce his course of action.

This was just a day after he met Zuma in Durban to discuss the report of the board of inquiry, chaired by Justice Jake Moloi, which investigated the ill-fated police-building leases that doomed Cele’s career in the police service. The board of inquiry found Cele guilty of maladministration and misconduct relating to the leasing of two buildings to the police totalling R1.7-billion.

While anyone else in the public eye facing the humiliation of being sacked by the president would have been hibernating in anticipation of the falling axe, Cele has been seen out and about in Durban, shopping, going to the gym and then gyrating his hips with Durban’s socialites on Saturday night.

Cele has made it known that the meeting with Zuma on Friday was at his request, not the president’s. The Sunday Times reported this week that Zuma sent Cele a letter last week informing him of his decision to fire him and detailing the reasons.

But Cele knows Zuma can’t simply axe him and dust off his hands. The decision to fire Cele as national police commissioner has consequences for Zuma and could cause upheaval in the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, which is the last thing the president needs in an election year. The complication resides in the genesis of the matter as well as the strength of Cele’s support base.

After Zuma became president in 2009 and appointed his Cabinet with additional ministries, business people started making overtures to ingratiate themselves with the new political elite. Roux Shabangu, the man at the middle of the police lease scandal, was in a network of highly connected business people in KwaZulu-Natal courting the new political luminaries.

With a shortage of office space to accommodate the new departments, the opportunity arose for these connected individuals to “assist” in acquiring buildings for the new ministers since the department of public works was unable to cope with the demand. Government-owned buildings in downtown Pretoria were also seen to be too grungy and inappropriate for the new ministers, who, at the time, were in their element buying new cars and houses.

It was around the same time that Cele was appointed and found the police headquarters in Pretoria to be too shabby for his discerning taste. Names were being circulated in the Cabinet of business people who could find upmarket buildings and lease them to public works for use by the new departments.

It was all going swimmingly until the Sunday Times broke the story of the irregular procurement of the Sanlam Middestad building in Pretoria.

After the story broke, talk in the KwaZulu-Natal rumour mill was that Cele was claiming that he did not know Shabangu personally and had been given his name by the president himself. This has never been confirmed.

Once the Sunday Times blew the lid on the police buildings, the other business people quickly cancelled their arrangements with ministers and dived for cover. Cele was caught out because of the power battles in the police, which led to the incriminating documents being leaked.

Prior to his appointment as police chief, Cele held a highly influential position in the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal as chairman of the eThekwini region, while serving in the provincial government as transport, safety and security MEC. He is still seen as a power broker in the eThekwini region and many influential business people are indebted to him for facilitating lucrative government contracts.

While the findings of the board of inquiry are damning and found that Cele is unfit to hold office, a large network of people in KwaZulu-Natal who influence the political-business nexus of that province don’t share the view. They are of the view that the worst Cele could have done was the crime of not paying attention to paperwork. The confluence of business and politics is so common throughout the country that they feel that Cele is being made a scapegoat for no good reason.

The two things that are not in dispute are that Cele performed relatively well as police chief, as is evident in the crime statistics, and that Cele would not have received any financial benefit had the lease deals gone through. Therefore, compared to the widespread rot in the state and people rigging tenders for personal benefit, Cele’s supporters feel he is still smelling of roses.

The view is not restricted to Cele’s supporters in KwaZulu-Natal. United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa told the SABC that Cele's case should have been handled differently.

“He was in the face of criminals on a daily basis and then by a mere technicality of saying we need government buildings to house the police, and then he is being punished for that, because there is no evidence which says that he has stolen money. I mean this is the first offence.

“If I were in the boots of Cele, I would definitely ask for a review in a court of law. We have DGs and ministers who are running all over, who are benefiting far more than the allegations against Cele. So please give us a break,” Holomisa said.

One connected KwaZulu-Natal businessman says he and others have already made it known to Zuma that he should never have succumbed to pressure and handed the process over to a judicial inquiry as he now has no control over the matter. This is despite the fact that Zuma had little option legally after the public protector found that the lease deals constituted maladministration.

The ANC leadership in KwaZulu-Natal is now under pressure to intervene in the matter and either get Zuma to reconsider his decision to fire Cele or to make sure he has a “soft landing” through a redeployment. A delegation led by the premier and provincial chairman Zweli Mkhize is to meet Zuma on the matter to find an amicable solution that would pacify Cele’s supporters.

Though support for Zuma’s second term as ANC president was universal in KwaZulu-Natal up to this point, the Cele matter could throw a spanner in the works. The subtext to this saga is that if Zuma is unable to protect KwaZulu-Natal’s political and business interests, the province should re-think its unqualified support at Mangaung.

Cele has so far been co-operative in the matter, taking advice from the KwaZulu-Natal power brokers not to embarrass the president further. All indications are that he will challenge the findings of the board of inquiry in court but not Zuma’s decision to fire him. This will allow him to bounce back into a senior deployment after the dust has settled. However, if Zuma does not play ball, Cele could change his strategy.

But Zuma’s dilemma is not only restricted to the decision to fire Cele but also who to appoint in his place. Though labour director-general Nathi Nhleko will placate the KwaZulu-Natal lobby, since he hails from that province, it is not likely to settle the turbulence in the police service.

With so much bad blood in police management, the rank and file are unlikely to respond well to the appointment of another civilian politician as national police commissioner. Zuma would know that respect for authority would only come if a career policeman with the requisite experience and skill is appointed.

However, appointing such a person may necessitate moving Nathi Mthethwa from the police ministry because it is well known that the minister does not have a good working relationship with the police generals.

Though Zuma has the ability to make minor changes to Cabinet due to the vacancy created by the death of former public service and administration minister Roy Padayachie, a third major reshuffle in the executive in three years will create further instability of his administration and expose him to more criticism over his poor appointments.  

Zuma will have to announce Cele’s firing and the appointment of the new police commissioner soon, perhaps even on Tuesday. But while Cele can still dance and party with his friends, the decision will weigh heavily on Zuma with both the rock and hard place bearing down on him. DM

Photo: Bheki Cele/Jacob Zuma (Reuters)

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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