South Africa

Riah Phiyega’s disaster-filled journey, far from over

By Alex Eliseev 1 September 2013

This weekend, Riah Phiyega set out to achieve the impossible: to convince South Africans that she’s still in control of the police service and that she hasn’t drowned in the deep end. But someone failed to Google the name of a new provincial commissioner she was appointing and her moment of triumph was ruined. Some have been quick to find the silver lining. ALEX ELISEEV is not one of those people.

Riah Phiyega has had a bad year. A disaster, even. And for that reason the media briefing she held on Saturday was – without a doubt – meant to be one of the most important public engagements in her short but turbulent police career. It was her opportunity to silence the cynics. To slice through the scandals. To boast about what has been achieved and to come out firing about her plans for the future. It was her moment to convince us that while she’s been dealt a terrible hand, she still has an ace up her sleeve.

It was a moment to go beyond the apologies and the silly metaphors. To go on the offensive and to change the agenda. To get back her credibility. To scrub away some of the damage done by the Marikana tragedy (and the commission of inquiry that continues to limp along), the murder of taxi driver Mido Macia, the Hilton Botha farce and revelations that around 1,500 cops have been hiding criminal records. It was her opportunity to tee up her next year in one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in the land.

But instead, every headline that followed was stolen by the blunder surrounding the appointment of a new Gauteng police commissioner. Eight hours after welcoming major general Mondli Zuma to the position, she was forced to issue an embarrassing statement admitting that he was facing charges of drunken driving and would have to be removed. Again, we were fed the “don’t judge me by the bad things that happen to me” line and were called on to celebrate her swift response.

But that’s simply not good enough.

The allegations against major general Zuma are damning. The man allegedly locked himself in a house for hours in order to prevent officers from breathalysing him. Sure, he is still to have his day in court. Sure, he has no criminal record and may have failed to disclose this gem of a charge to the interview panel (provided there was an interview panel). And sure, Phiyega doesn’t necessarily do the background checks herself and may have been genuinely shocked to hear Zuma is facing these charges. But as commander-in-chief the buck stops with her. If she is to convince us that the fight against crime is in capable hands, those hands should know when a major general picked to be a provincial commissioner (in a province as strategic as Gauteng) has baggage.

This wasn’t some station-level detective who caught the Oscar Pistorius murder case while facing his own attempted murder charges. This is a provincial commissioner.

In other words, there is no excuse for what happened.

Outgoing commissioner Mzwandile Petros has been leaving for weeks, if not months. This was not a rushed decision, just one that was cloaked in unnecessary confusion. Phiyega and her team had endless time to check out candidates and find a worthy replacement. Also, Zuma’s run-in with the law had been reported in the media. It wasn’t exactly a dark secret. It was a careless appointment at the worst possible time.

Phiyega’s own appointment was questioned a year ago because she was seen as another political deployment (like Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele). The experts had called for a career police officer to be promoted. The politicians promised a new management style.

Phiyega may have some conspiracy theories about facing harsher criticism because she’s a woman (the first female police chief) but that’s hard to swallow. Nobody wants her to fail. Nobody wished any disasters upon her. Everyone knows she was flung headfirst into the deep end.

Ask the Institute for Security Studies and it will tell you that the way Phiyega handled the Marikana shooting forced her to retreat from the public eye. It exposed her lack of operational understanding of the police service and crippled her ability to discuss other important topics. It branded her as being hopelessly “out of her depth”.

From the start, the ISS urged her to surround herself with skilled generals who could guide her through a world where (as she loves to say) blood runs blue. Instead, she’s now announced that she’s slashing the number of deputy national commissioners in half. We’re not here to weigh up that decision and it may well be a sound one.

Phiyega’s latest controversy joins a long list of disappointments we, as a country, have had to accept. Think about Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi or the IEC’s Pansy Tlakula just in the past few weeks. We hope for so much but due to scandal fatigue, digest disappointment after disappointment and move along. There are so few consequences for outright disasters.

Petros’ departure continues to baffle. The police say it’s because he has served out a maximum of two terms as a provincial commissioner. The ISS says that’s nonsense and the law allows Phiyega to extend his term as many times as she likes. Whatever the reasons, Phiyega would do well to think about how Petros managed to sculpt such a solid reputation despite his own scandals and mega corruption in the department.

Petros arrived with a plan. He communicated that plan and made sure it had a visible element. He used the media to communicate (he is very good at this) and hammered home the message about how many corrupt police officers were arrested and dismissed. He attended breakfasts and community evenings. He earned the trust and respect of citizens. He had a long career in the police and demonstrated his experience.

He had hiccups (controversies in the Western Cape, the sangoma thing, a robbery at his own house) but he somehow managed to shake these off by diverting the attention back to what matters: crime fighting.

This may be a simplistic way of looking at the issue, and things are probably tougher at the top, but Phiyega must now do something to repair the damage to her credibility.

She comes across as sincere and there is no mob baying for her blood or her head. The repairs may take time, but they have to start immediately. The alternative is re-runs of the Police Academy skit we saw this weekend and a weakening of yet another crucial institution. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at: @alexeliseev

The Police Academy comparison was inspired by our very own Ranjeni Munusamy.

Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega holds a news conference near Mooi Nooi in the North West on Friday, 17 August 2012.

Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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