South Africa

National Commissioner Riah Phiyega; one year later and still out to sea

By Mandy Wiener 5 September 2013

Last June, Riah Phiyega was appointed as the country’s new national police commissioner. These have been challenging times; Marikana, the Pistorius trial, as well as revelations of criminal cops in SAPS top ranks. At the time of her appointment Phiyega asked for a year before we judged her. Well, time’s up. MANDY WIENER caught up with the commissioner.

In June last year, I sat in the national commissioner’s office on the seventh floor of the Wachthuis building in Pretoria, across from a brand new police chief.

Riah Phiyega had been in the job for just two weeks. She was eager and excited at the prospect of taking on the poisoned chalice of the position despite the failings of her predecessors, but she was humbled by the “huge task” that lay before her.

She brushed off the cynics who doubted her ability to succeed in the job because she was not a career cop, was inexperienced and out of her depth. I agreed with those sceptics and suggested she was doomed to fail and would almost certainly be misled by her generals, who would set her up for disaster. I believed she was on a hiding to nothing. She asked me to give her time before judging her.

Almost fifteen months later, I’ve returned to the officious, bustling Wachthuis building under notably different circumstances. The plush, high-backed black leather chair is still there, as are the draping national flags in the corner. The heavy wooden desk is free of tatty brown files and folders and there is an abundant bouquet of blooming flowers in a vase.

“I wanted to make the office more feminine,” explains the country’s first ever woman police chief, who has clearly made the space her own. The brass is gleaming and the silver is polished, but the shimmer of Phiyega’s initial glow has been tarnished.

Since we spoke, Marikana has happened, rocking the organization to its very foundations. She’s also left gasping for air after the embarrassing spectacle of the past weekend and her bungled appointment of Gauteng police commissioner Mondli Zuma and his immediate withdrawal from the job.

Public sentiment is firmly against Phiyega and while I’m chatting to her, the Democratic Alliance issues a statement calling for her to resign. She had held a wide-ranging press conference at the weekend, which was meant to be a watershed moment during which she would wipe clean her slate and start afresh. Instead, no one listened to a word of the statement which her spin-doctors had spent days carefully crafting. Her Zuma moment overshadowed it all.

Despite the debacle, Phiyega is warm, upbeat and engaging as I walk in the door, even offering an embracing hug. It’s the Phiyega I recall from our last meeting, but not the one that the nation has met over the past year.

“So how’s the year gone?” I ask.

“I’ve learnt a lot. A university of leadership!” she admits, her mouth framed in an upturned admission. It’s clear she has been schooled since we last spoke.

“I had thought being where I am age-wise, career-wise, I had learnt it all but I have come to realize, there is just so much to learn. This has been a journey of learning. But I appreciate the opportunity. The biggest lesson for me is that when you go into any environment, go to the people, build trust, be willing to listen, be willing to share and that team is the answer to leadership.”

Riah Phiyega is not a popular police chief in the mould of Bheki Cele who was visible, swashbuckling and charismatic. He famously pledged to “squeeze the oxygen” for criminals. Phiyega is rarely seen in uniform walking the streets of townships on the beat with officers and doesn’t exactly talk tough. Cops have forgotten to keep their “stomachs in, chests out”. By her own admission, she has not beaten the drum loud enough.

“You know Mandy,” she sighs, “my first year was, wow, a very challenging one. Two months into this role, I met with a very huge incident. The Marikana incident just brought another spin into this first year and I’ve spent almost half of the year devoted to dealing with the post-incident responsibilities that fully occupied my life. So I’ve spent a lot of time with the commission coming in, I’ve spent almost two months at that commission, having to answer, and it was very involved. I needed not only to deal with the commission and the organization had taken its own beating, I had to stabilize the organization. It has affected us like it affected the nation but the nation is still expectant of us.”

But despite the distraction, she insists she’s been busy with walkabouts, her “Dumelang” introductory meetings, “Rah-Rah sessions” and has been meeting officers on the ground.

“Your cameras are just not following me,” she suggests.

She can’t avoid talking about the debacle over the bungled appointment of Mondli Zuma to the position of Gauteng police commissioner. I believe it speaks to the very problem highlighted by her detractors when she came into office: she would be misled by her generals who would set her up to fail.

Those who I have spoken to within the building suspect that some may have known about Zuma’s pending criminal charges and didn’t say anything because of the culture of fear within the organization. Those in the higher ranks are known to play their cards close to their chests because it’s difficult to know who to trust. Phiyega outright dismisses my suggestion that she was intentionally misled.

“No, that’s not fair, because remember I’ve been here for a year and I’ve looked around for those with ability and skill and passion and general Zuma is one of those. That is one of the intriguing things that I will share. I haven’t been set up because I didn’t even share it with most of them. I sat, I took time. I’ve been looking, searching, checking who actually has the capacity and ability to fit where I think we are going. I’ve eyed him quite closely. What is being articulated is not true because, look, our selection processes, we are one of the departments, we have a very good recruitment and selection processes.”

Perhaps if Phiyega had consulted more broadly, as one would do in a corporate environment, she wouldn’t have been publicly shamed. Is this an example of how being a civilian, a guest in the organization, impacted on the lack of trust and respect?

“The police call me haasvrou, if you’re not a cop, they’ll call you a haasie and I’ve learnt that I’m a haasievrou,” she jokes.

It’s a well-known analogy within the SAPS – civilians are viewed as weak, defenceless, scurrying bunnies stunned in the headlights.

“I’m ok with it, but it’s unwarranted because what I have learnt is that an institution is an institution is an institution, whether you are in a bank or an NGO or in a church,” says Phiyega.

“The skill set of leading an organization is almost very, very transversal. An organization such as the police environment equally needs a lot of general management, but I also say it’s not warranted because when I looked around I realized that a lot of the police that are seen as top cops have come in and learnt the ropes. I’m saying those who are still sceptics, I will now actually say it is unwarranted.”

The commissioner has shied away from admitting publicly that she’s been embarrassed by the Gauteng bungle, but she does believe she has taken sufficient responsibility for it.

“I have, because this is why I acted. I had to act as a leader to say when you are having a situation like this, what do you do? This is why I acted. I would say anyone who says I didn’t do my role really, unless they want Riah the person, I don’t understand. Because I think I did a very responsible thing and I didn’t even waste time. I thought on my feet and I made it happen.”

However, she can’t help but attribute blame to Zuma.

“I looked at it and said to myself there is non-declaration here when I’d given an opportunity to do so. If I sit eyeball to eyeball with you and we talk about the fact that I trust you, I have confidence in your abilities, can I trust you? Is there anything that I should know or not know? That’s the best you could have had.”

There is little doubt that the events of Marikana in August last year have defined Phiyega’s tenure. She acknowledges her time and focus has been dominated by the aftermath of the North West massacre. It has been suggested her lack of experience and weaknesses were exposed when she testified at the Farlam Inquiry and couldn’t answer technical questions.

“Did Marikana overwhelm and expose you?” I want to know.

“I couldn’t have asked for an accelerated learning platform such as Marikana because it took me from zero to a hundred, over time. I had to be on my feet to understand what we’re dealing with. I had to learn about policing, I didn’t have time to go slowly,” she recalls, but she’s adamant she was never out of depth, although the potential was there.

“My adrenaline was high. If I didn’t go into that adrenaline space maybe I would have felt out of depth. I couldn’t even feel. I was just running. I knew that this thing was rolling and I was rolling with it. Much as I was working with seasoned police and I realized that you are first a human being before you’re a professional or a cop. There was a lot of vulnerability, we were all feeling weak and as a leader I had to come in and say, ‘Let’s be strong, let’s move on.’ All we can do is to tell how we policed, how we experienced the event and all we can do is to tell the truth, how we know it.”

Despite ongoing murders on the platinum belt related to inter-union rivalry and simmering tensions, Phiyega believes her cops on the ground are on top of the situation.

“We’ve learnt a lot, we’ve upped our ante. I must tell you a lot has happened. Those killings we are talking about, we have made multiple arrests and there are very few of those murders that we haven’t arrested for. We are very, very active there. We’ve upped our focus in terms of localized public order servicing. We’ll be on top of that space.”

She also thinks it is perfectly fair that officers are receiving the best possible legal representation thanks to government sponsorship, when victims have been denied this.

“It is fair. Those cops did not wake up in the morning and go to Marikana. They went to work and any employer must make sure that if there is a need to defend, to protect, the government is supporting the police, purely because they were at work. To vilify police purely because the resources are not there is not fair.”

The DA has been scathing about the number of convicted criminals within the ranks of the service and has used this as ammunition against Phiyega. But she believes it’s a reason to applaud her. After all, she expedited an audit that was stagnating, which revealed that nearly 1,500 cops have criminal records.

“When I came here, it was a little bit weak, not moving, I gave it feet, I gave it hands, and we’ve concluded the audit. Our commitment is to ensure we clean that space. What we’ve done now is set up the Board of Fitness committees all over the country to start looking at these members. Remember there are labour laws in this country. You don’t just wake up and wipe those people away, otherwise we’ll spend many days in court and spend a lot of money and then be lambasted for not being prudent.”

She’s also saying all the right things about rooting out bad cops who are responsible for incidents of police brutality.

“If one incident comes like the Mido Macia case, we don’t say that because we arrested a million without any untoward action, we don’t just sit down and be comfortable. We also use those as case studies to show our students that’s not how we do it. We create lessons out of those.”

Phiyega repeats her familiar refrain of “Do not judge us by what is happening, judge us by what we do when that happens”. I’ve found that phrase tends to irritate most, rather than win them over.

She’s also pledging to clean up the rotten Crime Intelligence unit, which has been festering with claims of corruption and the Richard Mdluli affair. Phiyega has still not appointed a permanent head and I get the sense this is not a priority for her. She’s vague about what action has actually been taken when I ask if politicians can still say, tongue in cheek, that they greet Mdluli every time they make a phone call.

Can she give an assurance that decisions are taken for policing reasons and not political motives? After all, this country has had horrible experiences of state agencies being abused for personal, political gain.

“That’s work in progress. I’m going area by area. Cleaning it up, enhancing it, giving it more muscle so it can assist us because policing without intelligence is not going to take us anywhere.”

“You, the media,” she suddenly exclaims and takes a jibe at the fourth estate’s obsession with Mdluli. “I’ll understand you when I’m lying in my coffin but you know, you, there are what I call fashionable sayings, if it was read as political, I don’t think there was anything political in what we are doing. All we want to do really is to get intelligence and to assist us to do our work but unfortunately people are tagged, and if you are tagged and people are suspicious, you will not get positive engagement.”

Phiyega’s poor relationship with the public has been dented by her apparent failure to embrace Community Policing Forums and reservists. Over the past year reservists, particularly those in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, have been grumbling about being sidelined. But Phiyega “absolutely” insists that there is a place for them in the service.

“Reservists have a very critical role to play. Somewhere, somehow, for some reason it started being seen as being an entry point into career policing and that’s where the confusion comes. If you want to go policing, there is a very clear track. There was then a spirit of entitlement,” she suggests.

She raises her voice when I ask whether she still believes CPFs act as “impimpis” spying on the police, as she was reported to have said recently.

“Not my words. I was just quoting somebody. It wasn’t my views and I said it was very disappointing,” she insists, her voice rising in pitch.

“My view is that CPFs have a very critical role to play and CPFs can never be informers. They are very responsible and serious force multipliers in terms of delivering safety and security. It is a pity that media can choose their owns things and say what they are saying.”

If Riah Phiyega’s leadership of SAPS has been under the spotlight now, it will come under massive scrutiny when the focus of the world zooms in on the Oscar Pistorius trial in March next year. The country’s criminal justice system will be on trial along with the Paralympic athlete. The capabilities of the SAPS have already been undermined by the embarrassing spectacle of the emergence of Hilton Botha’s criminal charges.

Phiyega was forced to withdraw him from the case and place the country’s most senior detective lieutenant general Vinesh Moonoo in charge of the investigation.

“On Hilton Botha, I’m on record saying that was a seasoned cop with a lot of skills. I’ve said that and I’ll say it over and over and over again. What I have done is I’ve realized that this is a very intricate case and it was a case that was going to attract much, much more attention, internationally, globally, it had the Hollywood trappings. It was at that point that I decided I’m not going to send an ordinary detective. Hilton Botha was just there to assist us to go through the bail process. I needed a very seasoned detective. This is why I went to the top detective in the police to say, ‘top detective, this is a top case’ and the criminal justices system of this country will be judged on cases such as this. I don’t think embarrassment and whatever comes into this.”

I want an assurance that the cops won’t be embarrassed on a global scale when the trial runs next year.

“I’m very sure, I’ve been assured by my cops who say they have done the best that they could to investigate this matter,” she says in hope.

Phiyega is hopeful about so many things. She’s confident, upbeat and speaks with the seasoned slickness of a corporate executive. She wants South Africans to “take comfort in knowing that crime is progressively going down”.

She says all the right things and her comments are imbued with empathy and commitment. That’s how she comes across at least during the one-on-one engagement. But that is simply just not how the nation reads her. She’s seen as disengaged, floundering and overwhelmed. South Africans don’t feel safe like they did when Bheki Cele was beating the drum and brashly wagging his finger at the cameras. Citizens want Bheki Cele, but without the corruption.

Phiyega has not won the hearts and minds game and she’s paying the price for it. Her public image has plummeted. While she speaks about her performance, I do wonder whether she isn’t actually just too soft, too compassionate and too trusting for the job.

Ironic, considering how she’s viewed by the broader public. Phiyega has plans and programs. She talks big and with promise. But it’s all just pointless, really, unless she wins back the confidence of the nation. She has already failed to prove to those who believed she was doomed to fail because of her inexperience as a civilian.

She may have had a chance had Marikana not happened. She also could have done it if Saturday’s embarrassing debacle had not been allowed to happen. She faces an almost insurmountable challenge and she’ll struggle to claw her way back now. The tide has turned against her and she is at sea. DM

Mandy Wiener is an Eyewitness News reporter.

Read more:

  • Number 5: Our rookie new police chief takes on a pile of troubles that defeated four men before her, by Mandy Wiener on Mampoer

Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega on 17 January 2013. Picture: GCIS/SAPA

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