Cele’s friendliest of warnings to journalists reporting his departure

By Carien Du Plessis 18 October 2011

Police chief General Bheki Cele has demanded that Sunday Independent bosses do an investigation into front page stories that he’s leaving at the end of November, and report back to him within three weeks. Not that he’s trying to intimidate anyone or anything. CARIEN DU PLESSIS reports.

While President Jacob Zuma is still reading and considering the reasons Police Commissioner Bheki Cele gave him on why he shouldn’t be fired, action man Cele has lashed out angrily about Sunday reports that he’s leaving his post at the end of November to become South Africa’s new ambassador in Canada.

This comes after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found him guilty of maladministration in the awarding of R1.7 billion tenders for new police headquarters.

His spokeswoman, Major General Nonkululeko Mbatha, on Monday issued a statement saying the story “can only be a product of editorial incompetence or corruption, or both”, implying that Cele thinks that the paper got the story from someone who wanted him out of their political path ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung next year.

Mbatha points fingers to “elements of the criminal underworld and their allies within our society” and “their friends in the media” as the co-conspirators in the drive to oust Cele.

Cele, once a Zuma ally, some months ago featured with housing minister Tokyo Sexwale and other leaders in a supposed leaked intelligence report on leaders who want to topple Zuma.

So he’s not exactly sitting pretty with Zuma right now, which might explain his defensiveness/aggressiveness.

Mbatha says the police is convinced that the newspaper could not produce documents to back up its story, or the two independent sources it quoted, but they want the newspaper proprietors to “institute an internal investigation into the underlying factors behind the shocking lapse in basic quality control and accuracy check processes that led to the story being published”.

Cele wants the findings of this investigation to be released to the police within 21 days.

Mbatha couldn’t tell iMaverick why Cele doesn’t simply approach the Press Ombudsman, which is the usual route to go with such complaints.

“The SAPS (South African Police Service) would like to assure the South African public that General Cele is very much entrenched in his position as national commissioner and that no amount of dirty tricks by those who do not want to see government succeed in its drive to rid our country of the scourge of crime and criminality will ever destabilise the organisation and distract it from the mandate it has, by all accounts, been discharging with unprecedented efficiency,” Mbatha said.

She said Madonsela’s report did not find any evidence of corruption (Madonsela didn’t, but said that his conduct was unlawful, improper, and constituted maladministration, and recommended remedial action – followed by Zuma asking Cele in August to provide reasons why Cele shouldn’t be fired) or illegal activity in the police lease saga.

“No amount of repetition of the lie that General Cele is guilty of corruption will turn this into a fact that may be used to lobby for his removal as head of the SAPS,” she said.

She also said nobody had told Cele about the Canadian position, and besides, he’s too busy to undertake any diplomatic training now ahead of such a position.

After all, he had told journalists recently that he wouldn’t leave the police before his work there wasn’t done, so he must have a lot to do.

Being a man of few words (Cele had cancelled more than one presser at which he was supposed to have responded to Madonsela’s report), Cele simply said (in Mbatha’s statement, of course): “Over the past year or so, I have been more than careful not to engage in any manner that may have given rise to accusations that I sought to interfere with the freedom of the media. I have availed myself at all times to answer any question anyone may have had to ask of me.”

And then the subtle media tribunal warning that ANC leaders like so much: “In the final analysis, for the sake of our hard-won democracy, I hope that media practitioners are awake to spot enemies of media freedom even if they are within their own ranks,” he said.

Sunday Independent editor, Makhudu Sefara, who, like most Sunday journalists, was still trying to have some kind of a weekend on Monday, said he hadn’t seen Cele’s statement yet, or received a call from Cele’s office.

“We can’t do anything about it until we understand where he comes from. We sourced the story properly, and we stand by the story. As we speak I don’t see any basis for us to do the sort of investigation that he desires of us, but perhaps once I’ve seen his communication with us, I might be able to apply myself properly and take an appropriate decision from there.

“Whatever investigation he is requiring of us, there will be no revelation of sources to any outside parties,” he said.

The police had had run-ins with the Sunday Independent before when they allegedly tapped reporter Gcwalisile Khanyile’s phone (she was incidentally also responsible for Sunday’s story), followed her around, and tried to coerce another journalist employed by The Star, a sister newspaper of the Sunday Independent, into revealing “internal, confidential” information.

This came after the paper detailed allegations of nepotism, corruption, fraud and mismanagement in the crime intelligence unit.

In July – on the same day that the police lease report was to be released – The Star published a story that Madonsela was about to be arrested for alleged corruption during her tenure as commissioner at the SA Law Reform Commission.

This could have been an attempt by Cele’s supporters to kick up dust ahead of the release of the damning report, and to smear Madonsela’s name, or it could have been one of Cele’s detractors wanting to make him look petty.

Cele at this time also said he would investigate, but it’s not clear what has become of this investigation. DM

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