South Africa

Police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi: SA’s great balls of fire

By Ranjeni Munusamy 22 May 2012

Take your pick. When Hollywood comes to town, who would you like to play the daring, ass-kicking Acting National Police Commissioner, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi? Denzel Washington? Will Smith? Ice T? Whoever it is, he’ll have to show that, like Mkhwanazi, he’s determined to stamp his authority, whether his political bosses like it or not. 

When Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi accepted the appointment of Acting National Police Commissioner in October last year, he must have known it was a poisoned chalice and that he would someday want to kick himself for taking on the worst job in South Africa.

He did so anyway, probably because as the former head of the Special Task Force, police Air Wing and National Intervention Unit, he already had to have, er, balls of steel. But then Mkhwanazi grew up in one of South Africa’s most notorious townships in the 80s and 90s, Edendale in Pietermaritzburg, and the rampant political violence during his childhood and youth would have shaped the “tough guy” image he now exudes.

Even without all the political drama and conspiracies enveloping the senior ranks of the South African Police Service, crime is a highly emotive issue in South Africa and the person charged with combating it has to deal with immense public pressure. It is also no picnic taking charge of 198,000 employees across the country, most of whom are armed and have to confront the evil face of crime on a daily basis. 

But the position of national police commissioner had crushed two very high-profile figures in the ANC, Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele. 

While Cele was still in the job, a fierce behind-the-scenes battle was raging in the senior ranks of the police and intelligence services. This battle has its genesis in the Thabo Mbeki-Jacob Zuma political showdown which brought the security agencies to their knees.

After Mbeki’s recall from office, people perceived to be loyal to him were systematically weeded out and a new set of securocrats were appointed on the basis of their supposed loyalty to the Zuma camp. But the house of cards soon collapsed when they all turned on each other in a rivalry over loyalty and affirmation.

At a time when police minister Nathi Mthethwa was shown to be hopelessly out of his depth in handling the crisis, Cele was suspended. Into the ring of fire stepped Mkhwanazi, amid severe criticism in the security sector that over 20 more senior generals were shunned by President Jacob Zuma in favour of an unknown 38-year-old with a gun and a jackboot.

But in the seven months he has been in the job, Mkhwanazi has shown his mettle and, despite being officially unqualified for the job, is making a genuine attempt to stop the chaos raging around him. If his political bosses thought he was just a stand-in guy who would do as he was told, he has proved he is no pushover. And if those who serve under Mkwanazi thought they could undermine him, perhaps they should think again: he has shown he is no fool. 

In the first few weeks in the job, Mkhwanazi already began making controversial moves to show he was in charge, such as reshuffling people in senior posts. Ahead of the ANC’s centenary celebrations in Bloemfontein, he put out a strong message that cops had no business interfering in politics or showing their political affiliation.

“If I find anyone playing politics, we will deal with you severely,” Mkhwanazi said.

In March, Mkhwanazi earned the title of Mampara of the Week by the Sunday Times after he threatened to fire his internal audit team over a leaked report which showed that 27,329 police officers on active duty had failed their firearm proficiency tests.

But it is his handling of the one big problem engulfing the police service which nobody wants to deal with that has earned him respect: Richard Mdluli. The allegations of murder, corruption, nepotism and looting of the secret service fund surrounding the crime intelligence boss has shown Mdluli to be an already bad cop gone rotten.

The surfacing of the allegations in public was clearly as a result of an internal fightback by those fed up with Mdluli’s abuses and special status as a political appointment, despite being an apartheid era cop. This status became apparent when all the criminal charges against him were suddenly withdrawn and his suspension overturned.

Mkhwanazi played his hand to show this was not his decision and that he was unhappy with it. Stories emerged that he intended to resign over the alleged political protection Mdluli was receiving. Mthethwa has consistently refused to discuss the matter publicly and, apart from denying links between Zuma and Mdluli, the presidency has also dodged it.

A month ago, Mkhwanazi dropped a bombshell in Parliament, revealing political interference in the work of the police. He told MPs that he had been instructed by “powers beyond us” to “release some case dockets to the inspector-general for intelligence” – a thinly veiled reference to criminal investigations against Mdluli.

In a surprise move earlier this month, Mthethwa bowed to public pressure and announced in Parliament that, as a result of discussions he had had with Mkhwanazi, Mdluli would be shifted out of crime intelligence. He didn’t say where Mdluli would go. The shift, Mthethwa said, was to allow for an investigation into allegations of a conspiracy against Mdluli by his colleagues.

The following morning, Mkhwanazi went on to SABC radio and explained that he had moved Mdluli to a post in the operations division and that he was determined to look into all the allegations against him. It was a markedly different position from Mthethwa’s, who still appears to want to suppress the matter and protect Mdluli. 

Last week, lobby group Freedom Under Law applied for an urgent interdict to stop Mdluli from performing any functions in the police pending a judicial review of the decisions relating to his reinstatement. Simultaneously, Mkhwanazi signed notices of suspension against Mdluli and financial head of Crime Intelligence Major-General Solly Lazarus, asking them to provide him with reasons why they should not be suspended.

The Sunday Independent reported this week that the move by Mkhwanazi to suspend Mdluli was part of a “massive clean-up” of police crime intelligence.

“I am a cop. I want the police environment to have clean cops. If we want to fight crime we must rid the SAPS of criminals and stay with clean cops,” Mkhwanazi told the paper.

He reiterated the sentiment in forthright interviews with SABC radio and Eyewitness News on Monday. He admitted that police controls on phone-tapping were too lax and that the system had been abused.

“The bad things that have been publicised about the SAPS are concerning,” Mkhwanazi said.

In a sea of deceit and contempt for the public by his political bosses, Mkhwanazi has been a breath of fresh air by speaking out and taking action against the rot. This cannot be good for his career and he may not succeed in his goals if he is confronted with further political pressure. But Mkhwanazi is helping to restore public confidence in the police service. And he is showing that maybe, just maybe, there are still a few good men. DM

Photo: Acting national police commissioner, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. FOTO24/Lisa Hnatowicz.


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