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25 October 2014 04:32 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane

Bheki Cele: set up to fail from the start

  • Sipho Hlongwane
You have to feel sorry for the departed general Bheki Cele. In many ways, his demise was not of his own doing. President Jacob Zuma, his boss, should have seen the mess coming, but he set in motion events that would eventually result in Cele’s disgrace anyway. By SIPHO HLONGWANE

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished by Queen Persephone, daughter of Zeus, to roll a gigantic boulder up a very steep hill. In The Odyssey, Homer captures the forlorn state of Sisyphus by saying: “But every time, as he was going to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and the misbegotten rock came bounding down again”. 

A Sisyphean task is therefore one that is unending or unrewarding. The punished king knows that even as he fetches the boulder again, it is to no avail since he will only be setting himself up to repeat the same thing again, for eternity. 

Was general Cele assigned to a task he was destined to fail at when he was appointed to become the national police commissioner in 2009? When one applies all the wisdom that comes with hindsight to the fated general’s career, the inevitable conclusion is that he was indeed set up to fail. 

When Cele’s appointment was announced in 2009, the criticism from opposition parties was that, like Mbeki 10 years previously, Zuma had opted to appoint a political ally in a strategic position. That appointee could not boast of any policing experience. 

“Cele's appointment is a serious blow for our fight against crime in South Africa because Commissioner Cele does not possess the necessary experience and expertise that this high office requires,” the Inkatha Freedom Party grumbled at the time.

As the public protector and the judge Jake Moloi commission of inquiry have highlighted, leading the police is an exceptionally complicated job that requires the toughness and shrewdness to lead what is essentially an armed force. It also requires the ability to understand and manage highly complicated administrative tasks demanded by the Public Finance Management Act and various other acts governing the police.

What sank Cele was his personal mishandling of the police headquarters lease process. The police needed two new buildings, one in Pretoria and one in Durban, and the process to source and eventually lease the new headquarters was flawed from the very beginning. Public protector Thuli Madonsela found that, though there was no evidence that Cele had interfered with the lease process to ensure that the tender would go to Roux Shabangu, the board of inquiry led by Judge Jake Moloi made damning findings and recommended that Cele be criminally prosecuted. 

By his own admission, the former commissioner found the procurement processes of the SAPS supply chain management confounding and beyond his ken. To put it bluntly, he should never have been appointed to the top of the police service. The main priority for Zuma in his appointment of Cele was ensuring political loyalty at the top of the police. Other skill sets almost didn’t matter. 

The lesson seems to have been learned – this time around, Zuma has gone for someone with zero political capital but yards of administrative skill. The new commissioner, Mangwashi “Riah” Phiyega, is very unlikely to get herself and the police entangled in supply chain management issues.

The most frustrating part of the Cele saga is that he could have been very useful to the country had he been deployed to a job more suited to his personality and skill set. Although the stench of political manipulation never quite left him, he was a very effective MEC for transport and community and safety liaison. 

Under his watch, the “zero tolerance” campaign yielded real results on KwaZulu-Natal’s roads, and he was one of the first to highlight the public danger presented by the Roadlink bus service. 

Cele has always been a passionate, if abrasive, political leader. Unfortunately, what the police needed was not a drill sergeant, but a skilled administrator. Perhaps he should have been our sports minister. Who knows, Bafana Bafana could be sitting in the top 20 in the Fifa World Rankings with an African Cup of Nations trophy if Cele had been allowed to inject his personal brand of leadership into our football organisations. 

Cele could be one of the first politicians to suffer terribly thanks to the toxic mix of cadre deployment (above all else) and Zuma’s need to insulate himself from the security cluster. A criminal case would delve into his involvement in the police headquarters lease saga in biting detail, and would reveal the extent of his involvement, but as things stand right now, he is the unhappy victim of wrongful deployment.

Then again, he always had the option of turning Zuma down in 2009. Victim he may be, but not haplessly so. DM

  • Sipho Hlongwane
sipho hlongwane BW

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession.

He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

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