South Africa

Analysis: Down the Police National Commissioner’s rabbit hole we go again

By Mandy Wiener 30 October 2013

Once again, South Africa, we find ourselves in that all too familiar, precarious limbo. Like Alice, we have gone down the rabbit hole towards surreal astonishment - but because the nowhere-world we have landed in with a thump is not entirely new to us, the chaos and mayhem almost seems normal. We are in that world between allegation and dismissal, where doubt, confusion, fear and speculation live, the world where the Police National Commissioner is being investigated. By MANDY WIENER.

We first went there when Jackie Selebi was National Commissioner of Police. Reports broke in mid-2006 about Selebi’s dubious relationship with so-called mafioso Glenn Agliotti. For well over a year and a half, the country lived in this limbo as the Scorpions built a case against Selebi and the NPA head Vusi Pikoli repeatedly warned then President Thabo Mbeki about his top cop’s suspected criminal behaviour. Despite this, Selebi remained in his position at Wagthuis and famously came out to wave his palms at the cameras, saying ‘These hands are clean’.

As Selebi clung onto power, an ugly battle raged between the Scorpions and the SAPS over territory, power and documents. Spooks clandestinely recorded conversations between top prosecuting officials and state agencies were abused, resulting in sensational controversies such as the Browse Mole report and the hoax e-mail saga. It was only in February 2008, after it was announced Selebi would be formally charged, that Mbeki was finally forced to act against him. Even then, an acting Commissioner took over the post for months as Selebi fought the criminal charges against him unsuccessfully.

We returned again in August 2010 when newspaper reports broke about Bheki Cele and a dodgy property lease involving Durban businessman Roux Shabangu. Cele, in celebrated cowboy style, called the reporters responsible for the expose ‘shady’ and blatantly denied any wrongdoing.

While pressure against Cele mounted, the dirty tricks began to play out. One of the authors of the reports was arrested on seemingly spurious charges, held without bail and interrogated about his politics. The reporters’ phones were bugged and they claimed to be the victims of a smear campaign. As Cele looked the other way, the Crime Intelligence division festered further with Richard Mdluli and his henchmen allegedly pillaging a secret fund and listening in on conversations of anyone and everyone they didn’t like.

It took President Zuma over a year, and two reports from public protector Thuli Madonsela, to appoint a board of inquiry to probe Cele’s fitness to hold office. Finally in June 2012, nearly two years after the allegations first emerged, Zuma fired Cele.

We are back in that familiar land of limbo now. There is a new police commissioner with new allegations.

Riah Phiyega is accused of tipping off Western Cape police chief Arno Lamoer about a Hawks investigation into his relationship with a suspected drug lord. In so doing, she would have defeated the ends of justice. The Independent Police Investigate Directorate yesterday announced that it would formally investigate these allegations. The claims come on the back of Phiyega’s decision to suspend her Crime Intelligence head Chris Ngcobo for apparently falsifying his credentials. He claims he was sidelined because he raised the alarm about Phiyega and Lamoer.

Phiyega has had her ‘my hands are clean’ moment. She issued a statement last week insisting the charges would not be proven:

“You can try as much as you like, but you will not succeed. No mud thrown at me will stick. I remain determined to ensure that nothing, absolutely nothing, deters me and my leadership team from the new journey of rebuilding SAPS, especially the Crime Intelligence Division.”

She has also responded to the IPID’s decision to investigate her by welcoming the move and reiterating that she has committed no crime. She’s also moved to “reassure members of the SAPS, as well as the people of South Africa, that [she] remain[s] focused on [her] efforts to fight crime and ensure that all police units and officials conduct their tasks with the utmost integrity”.

In the meantime, the Democratic Alliance has called for her to be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation:

“In order to ensure that the investigation is truly independent, Phiyega must be suspended as a course of action to allow the investigation to be conducted without any possibility of her interference. According to the Labour Relations Act, if an employee has been implicated in misconduct of a serious nature, there is prima facie evidence of guilt and if there is reason to believe that the employee will unfairly influence the investigation – there are reasonable grounds for a suspension”.

If the chatter in well-informed police circles is to be believed, Phiyega is ‘gone’ and her days in the Commissioner’s chair are numbered.

Skeptics (this author included) will say ‘I told you so’ – Phiyega was on a hiding to nothing from the start. Despite her very best efforts and intentions, her lack of law enforcing experience would always count against her, her generals would undermine and betray her and she would always be treated as a guest, a ‘hasievrou’, in the police service. From Marikana to Mido Macia, Bethuel Zuma to Mdluli, she has lost the hearts and minds game in the eyes of the public and despite her determination to survive, it will be a near impossible feat.

But it is no easy thing to get rid of a Police Commissioner.

History tells us this and we only need to look at precedent to understand why. Unfortunately, there is much precedent. Both Selebi and Cele stayed in office for nearly two years after the allegations were made, continuing to run the country’s fight against crime, as they fought their own personal battles. Both remained adamant that they were innocent, victims of malicious smear campaigns. While they remained in their jobs, the cost was grave. Public confidence in the SAPS waned and an impression was created that the fish was rotting from the head. We saw how the dirty tricks department flourished while Selebi and Cele were tainted.

Now we find ourselves back in this all-too-familiar territory once again and we would be idiots to keep hitting our heads against the wall, expecting a different result. If history is to be trusted, Riah Phiyega could yet have another two years in the job. Or could the politicians learn from the mistakes of Selebi and Cele and move her out now, to allow the investigation to continue? Should we believe Phiyega that she is indeed the victim of concocted, underhanded allegations, just like her predecessors claimed to be? It is entirely possible and likely that this is true, but Phiyega will struggle to convince a cynical public of this.

The problem for the current Commissioner is that we have all been to this limbo land before. We have seen how this surreal trip down the rabbit hole ends, we have listened to all the stories, from the crazy to the bizarre, and we have encountered the curious cast of characters. Nothing shocks us anymore and the truth is increasingly hard to believe. The adventure is nowhere near over yet. DM

Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega holds a news conference in Pretoria, Saturday, 31 August 2013. Managing the police is no different from managing other institutions, Phiyega said. She was briefing the media on her first year in office. Picture: GCIS/SAPA

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