South Africa

Zuma squeezes the oxygen from General Cele’s job

By Alex Eliseev 7 June 2012

And so, South Africa bids farewell to another disgraced national police commissioner. The hat-loving Bheki Cele is bound to keep fighting, but his axing leaves the police in an even deeper leadership crisis, with burning questions about his replacement. ALEX ELISEEV reports.

If the police force were a laboratory to test what happens when a politician is chosen to lead the organisation instead of a career cop, then grab a fire extinguisher because another experiment has just blown up.

President Jacob Zuma has reportedly fired Bheki Cele, following a damning report by an enquiry set up to investigate whether he was fit to hold office.

The presidency is yet to confirm this, saying Zuma will not make any announcement until he’s ready, but the oxygen around Cele has clearly been squeezed.

This all follows a string of exposés by the Sunday Times, which blew the lid on two lease agreements for new police headquarters, worth over R1.5-billion.

The scandal got Cele suspended and the minister of public works, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, fired. It was a thrilling ride, packed (as usual) with denials and plenty of “my hands are clean” speeches.

Eventually, public protector Thuli Madonsela was called in to investigate and found a staggering amount of evidence to suggest the deals were unlawful. Her reports left a shadowy question mark over the role businessman Roux Shabangu played in the saga – apart, of course, from cashing in on the deals.

Last year, Zuma ordered a commission of inquiry into Cele’s conduct, which was led by judge Jake Moloi. The commission grabbed the baton from Madonsela and ruled that Cele was “dishonest” and should be axed. It called for a criminal probe into the entire affair.

The commission found Cele guilty of “grave misconduct”, slammed those police officers who lied under oath to protect him and raised concerns about a “questionable relationship” between him and Shabangu.

While Cele tried to fob it off as having put too much faith in his subordinates, the commission saw it more as blatant “maladministration”.

Cele wrote to Zuma to ask him not to believe the inquiry’s findings, claiming they were riddled with factual mistakes. He’s also made threats to challenge the recommendations, possibly in court.

Before being deployed to the police in 2009, Cele served as transport MEC in KwaZulu-Natal and has always been seen as a staunch Zuma ally. Like a new sheriff, he sauntered into town during Jackie Selebi’s long and painful fall from grace. Selebi was also a political appointment.

It was a difficult time, with the country’s most senior policeman – the head of Interpol – accused (and later convicted) of fraud. Cele’s job was to stabilise the ship and steer it away from troubled waters. Or, as the Institute for Security Studies’ Johan Burger puts it, his role was to “undo the damage”.

“The police service needed someone to pull it out from the morass that Selebi pulled it into,” Burger said.

At first, Cele seemed the right man for the job, at least to many police officers under his command. He came with the fierce reputation of a street warrior – a cowboy who liked to wear hats and coats, and who could talk tough and shoot straight. More importantly, he put on a great show to identify emotionally with the rank and file.

Much like expelled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, there was never a dull press conference with Cele around. No matter the topic, he would threaten to “squeeze the oxygen” so that criminals could not breathe and therefore operate. Speaking about fitness, he rattled on about “stomach in, chest out”, which went viral, especially amongst comedians.

Seeing the controversy it kicked up, he backed away from his “shoot to kill” mantra, changing it to a concept of “if a criminal and a policeman are in a shootout, it must not be the policeman who dies”.

He reminded us that criminals were not armed with broomsticks, but with deadly assault rifles and warned robbers that when they brushed their teeth at night, their toothbrushes should be whispering: “police, police, police”.

Once, he arrived at a crime scene in a helicopter, landing it in a township street and making a dramatic entrance through the cloud of dust.

When officers were killed on duty, Cele made an effort to attend funeral after funeral, delivering emotional speeches to their grieving families. He was later accused of starting a fake war around this issue, in order to distract attention from the real problems.

Cele also executed an extremely controversial change in the police’s rank system, reverting back to the army hierarchy. He took the rank of general. It was a way of telling criminals “we’re taking back the streets”.

Though the tough talk made great headlines, Cele also sparked an international incident by calling murder accused, Shrien Dewani, a monkey who came to South Africa to murder his fiancé Anni. The comment was so wrong for so many legal reasons it’s frightening, not least because Dewani had not been convicted. The comment came back to haunt him while Dewani was arguing against being extradited to South Africa. Justice minister Jeff Radebe had to pick up the pieces and make assurances that the suspect’s constitutional rights to a fair trial would be respected.

This is the legacy Cele leaves behind, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that police and politics make for an explosive and destructive mixture. And, as always, the collateral damage is the average citizen.

Cele may have been a master illusionist, a swanky dresser and a machine gun of wonderful quotes but Burger, who served in the police for decades, says Cele will be remembered for all the opportunities he managed to miss.

“There was huge expectation but unfortunately, right from the start, he became controversial,” Burger says. “It proved to be deeply embarrassing for the police and the country.”

With the scandal around Richard Mdluli causing untold chaos, the police now need a strong leader. Fears that Mdluli may take the post seem to have passed, but there’s still speculation that a politician – director-general of Labour, Nkosinathi Nhleko – may be deployed.

This week, chair of the police portfolio committee, Sindi Chikunga, had this to say about politics within the police: “The constitution dictates that the police be apolitical. When there are issues that suggest in any way that we might actually have police who are pushing a political agenda that is frightening.”

Burger says though acting commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi is inexperienced and has much to learn, he’s not a bad bet. A career policeman who has shown integrity (by suspending Mdluli) and an ability to stand up to political bullies, Mkhwanazi could grow into the position.

Burger says what’s really encouraging is that Mkhwanazi seems to have the support of some top generals, and has become a rallying point of sorts.

Burger believes Gauteng’s top cop, Mzwandile Petros, could also do well to lead the force. He’s been far quieter than Cele, but under his watch more than 600 officers have been arrested for various crimes. This, Burger says, shows a commitment to sweeping out corruption and a man who could – if asked – run an organisation of almost 200,000 people and a budget of R62-billion.

Burger’s advice to whoever takes over: act decisively against those accused of crimes, surround yourself with the right people, do an audit of everything that’s broken and go back to basics in fixing it.

“Police leadership has been left in tatters,” he concludes. “I plead with the president not to appoint a politician to lead the police. What we need is a policeman.” DM

Photo: Bheki Cele/Reuters

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