South Africa

Bheki Cele’s last hurrah – that actually isn’t

By Sipho Hlongwane 13 June 2012

A day after the president appointed a new police commissioner to replace him, the sacked Bheki Cele hit back at the Public Protector, Justice Jake Moloi, and anyone else he thinks had a hand in his eventual demise. He has promised to ride off quietly into the sunset, but nobody believes him. The general has every intention of being a fly in Jacob Zuma’s ointment. By SIPHO HLONGWANE

You’ve got to hand it to General Bheki Cele – the man knows how to make a huge splash. Not 24 hours after President Jacob Zuma appointed Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega as the new national police commissioner, Cele accepted an invitation by the National Press Club to speak on his misadventures. And how he spoke. He stopped just short of blaming all the king’s horses and all the king’s men of orchestrating a massive conspiracy to unseat him. Even though he admitted that he found the procurement procedures of the police service thoroughly baffling, he still believes that someone had it in for him, and pressured judge Jake Moloi (who headed a commission of inquiry into the police lease scandal) to recommend that he be sacked. He muttered darkly about the president’s advisors as well. If he is to be believed, someone very high up wanted him out, but he won’t say why. And he won’t say whom. What he did say was that he will be seeking legal relief with regards to the Moloi report, which could potentially mean that Zuma’s decision to sack him may be declared unlawful and invalid by the courts.

But not that this is the general’s intention. He started the press conference off by saying that he’s going away quietly. He referred back to a speech he made in KwaZulu Natal when he was first appointed as the police commissioner, in which he told Helen Zille and the archbishop Desmond Tutu to shut up and go home.

“I am not a man who has a problem with taking his own advice. I will not engage in pointless back-chatting. I will simply shut up and go home,” he said.

He then addressed the police, he said, “I wish the new police commissioner the best of luck. Remember, she did not steal my job. She answered the same call that I did three years ago. The only thing worth obsessing about is the safety of our people.”

He then turned his attention to the Sunday Times, which first published a story on the dodgy police lease headquarters. In it, the paper said that the police signed lengthy leases for two police headquarters without following due process. Also, Cele was accused of tender rigging, as the buildings were owned by Roux Shabangu, who was reportedly close to him.

A subsequent investigation by the Public Protector cleared him of most of the claims, Cele said. “Despite the Public Protector’s report, the Sunday Times still refuses to retract its story,” he grumbled. “And the two adverse findings that were made against me, that I failed to make sure that the lease was done via proper public procurement managements systems, and that the lease was not tendered, were milked for all their worth.”

Although he disagrees with the protector’s findings against him (his contention is that he’s guilty of incompetence with regards to procurement procedures, which is not a fire-able offence in his book) he will not be taking Thuli Madonsela to court over it.

Cele took exception to Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s response to his sacking – he said that all public officers caught with their hands in the cookie jar need to similarly dealt with – saying that he was never actually found guilty of corruption or tender rigging.

“Which cookie jar was I caught dipping into, Mr Vavi?” he asked.

“Unsuspecting readers of news reports would be forgiven for thinking that, like my predecessor, I was tried and found guilty of corruption. They would be forgiven for thinking that like Richard Mdluli, I am accused of murder,” Cele said.

The majority of Cele’s opprobrium was spared for the Moloi commission. It is the former commissioner’s contention that the entire process was politically manipulated so that the commission could only reach one conclusion. At first, it sounded like Cele was accusing certain Cabinet ministers of meeting with Moloi to try and influence him to reach a negative finding – he later modified his earlier statement to say that “some people from the offices of ministers” met with Moloi.

Unlike Madonsela, Cele has promised to file an application for a review of the Moloi report with the high court, and to report the judge to the Judicial Service Commission for humiliating and abusing him during the hearing.

“I am going to court because I want the president to clarify which aspects of the Moloi report he relied upon to reach the decision to fire me,” he said. “I also want the high court to declare the Moloi report invalid, which will render the decision to fire me invalid and unlawful.”

Cele denied that his end-game was to receive a pay-out (or “golden handshake”) on his terminated contract, or to be reinstated. He is also not going to quit the African National Congress, or political life, forever. He characterised his relationship with the president as being excellent, but then refused to grant the same conviviality to his political boss, police minister Nathi Mthethwa.

“I have nothing to say to the minister [of police],” he said darkly.

One area in which he absolutely refused to give any ground is his legacy as a police boss. Cele is confident that the morale among the police was the highest when he was in charge, and proclaimed that the police missed him as much as he missed them.

There are several gaping holes in Cele’s conspiracy theory. He himself does not think that his firing has anything to do with Richard Mdluli (who was first suspended under his watch), but rather goes higher up. The problem is that Cele did not seem to be standing in anyone’s way. He has always been Zuma’s man and was a great asset to the president as long as he was on his side. Why would anyone connive to have him thrown out of the police, and presumably, the good books in the ANC? He wouldn’t name any names, but his furious response to the name of Nathi Mthethwa left us with little doubt as to who he considers his enemy in all of this.

The former commissioner has artfully kept his criticisms away from Zuma and the ANC – most likely not to sabotage his chances of retaining his seat in the powerful national executive committee of the party at the national congress in December. But it is inevitable that the pending court case will end up being a major headache for Zuma, should the courts agree with Cele’s version of events. Whether the case is heard before or after the congress could have a major bearing on the general’s political future. Should he find himself outside of the NEC after Mangaung, it will be the effective end of his political career. People who have come up against Zuma, even inadvertently, have not emerged unscathed.

Cele may have been a great drill sergeant, but it is his administrative weaknesses that finally brought him down. The president seems to think the same thing, and has responded by appointing a civilian with zero policing experience but tonnes of administrative skill and talent. It is unfortunate that for all his crime-tackling enthusiasm, it is his incompetence that may come to colour his legacy. DM

Photo: Bheki Cele (Jordi Matas)