The unexpected appointment of Ms (now General, I think) Victoria Mangwashi “Riah” Phiyega on Tuesday 13 June as national police commissioner, after the long- awaited sacking of Mr (formerly general) Bheki Cele was indeed a stunning surprise.
One is still confused about the motivation for the appointment of yet another civilian (some call it a political appointee) to the obviously operational position after the failure of her predecessors, Bra Bheki and Oom Jacky. We are told of her impeccable academic credentials and managerial skills and this is good.
I for one was happy to give the lady the benefit of the doubt until she fell into that oh so irresistible trap of our national police commissioners: unbridled verbosity.
At her debut press conference, flanked by the comparatively boyish, former acting commissioner, General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, she said after being questioned about her lack of policing experience: “You don’t have to be a drunk to own a bottle store.” As if this would be the answer to settle all questions rightfully lingering in the minds of South Africans about our national safety.
The satisfaction on her face after these words reminded me of Garfield the cat, after yet another gluttonous feast, with his lasagna storage units full. Panic and deep trepidation flooded my thoughts as she licked her lips with glee. These words spoke to me of one utterly and dangerously oblivious of the gravity of the task at hand.
The nervous laughter of the journalists and officials present at this conference told a sad story of a country in the merciless grip of mediocrity and unaccountability. There were enough intelligent journalists there to challenge the logic and appropriateness of this fallacious analogy and expose the more significant unpreparedness of this individual for the impending job. Perhaps they were not afraid but just polite and were giving the woman the benefit of doubt.
But you’ve got to ask, given the current low morale in our police service, after the Richard Mdluli debacle and the sacking of yet another commissioner amidst speculations of criminal conduct: Can we (if her utterances are anything to go by) afford yet another inexperienced motor-mouth in this position? Can we afford the euphemisms and politeness?
This is a fight against a diabolically hardened criminal infestation but we have fielded an intellectually questionable amateur “who is willing to learn”. Talk about bringing a knife to a gun-fight.
You’ll remember the sage words of now jailed, former national police commissioner Jacky Selebi when asked about his friendship with a known druglord. He said: “Glenn Agliotti is my friend, finished and klaar!” The now familiar image of Garfield flashed in my mind then but I called my rebellious thoughts to order. “How can you think such things about the national commissioner of police, who has such illustrious struggle credentials”, I reprimanded myself. Well, Oom Jacky, formerly general Selebi, is now languishing in orange overalls.
Perhaps somebody should have pointed out then that the job of national commissioner is about more than witty one-liners and ceremonial appearances. But of course, we were all so very polite and the result is a thoroughly compromised criminal justice system, an acquitted drug lord and a hefty legal bill for the taxpayer.
Who can forget the famous utterances of now fired Bra Bheki Cele, also formerly general of the cops, when asked about his inexperience as a police officer. He said, “You don’t have to be a pilot to be CEO of SAA.” Do you see a pattern here, or is it just me? Well, he went on to sign a dubious R1.7-billion rand lease for police offices with a dodgy character, Roux Shabangu, which landed him in the dwang.
Perhaps somebody should have told him that his political popularity in KwaZulu-Natal, his abrasive hubris, charm and weird hats would not be enough to make him a credible commissioner, however valuable those attributes may be in the political arena. But we were all so enamoured by his colourful use of words, so mesmerised by the glamorous side-show that we forgot the main issue: policing!
It appears to me that when appointments are made by politicians for specific operational jobs they defer to what is politically important and not what is operationally required. This is to be expected because they are, after all, politicians.
However, this exposes a crucial impediment in the police ministerial advisory committee, the availability of competent counsel or the amiability of the political bosses to such counse if it indeed exists.
And it raises the question, should it be politicians who make operational decisions of this nature? This politicics-centricity is doing no one any favours, least of all the appointees because it fills them with such an unfortunate sense of self-importance that it blinds them to the task at hand as they posture for their political masters. The arrogance is inevitable because the power and authority of such a position as national police commissioner, if not tempered with the regimented discipline of a police officer, is intoxicating. It sets them up for failure and makes a mockery of the police service.
The appointment of Ms (now General, I think) Victoria Mangwashi “Riah” Phiyega is an unfortunate but missed opportunity to bring dignity back to the police service. It has undoubtedly shattered the prospects of promotion to the highest position attainable in the service for the committed police officer within the service’s ranks. It is a devastating blow to the already low morale of police operatives.
It has been said that the most experienced officers in the service with the requisite skills to be national police commissioner are those who were trained by the apartheid regime and to promote them would therefore be untenable for the “revolutionary vision”.
The foolishness of such a mindset is both sad and insulting to the idea of a united South Africa and reeks of not only racism but political factionalism among the political decision-makers.
Phiyega is a worthy and well-educated administrator and would have been ideal to be at the helm of any other organisation - not the police. This appointment has diminished her gravitas and made her a political pawn even before she has started. She should not have accepted it. You don’t have to be illiterate to be a fool. DM
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