If Nathi Mthethwa were a comedian, he would win joke of the year. But the police minister is deadly serious in nominating controversy-specialist Robert McBride as head of the Internal Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). The nomination is backed by cabinet, which means it has President Jacob Zuma’s blessing. By GREG NICOLSON.
The McBride chronicles might make a decent novel. He was part of an Umkhonto we Sizwe cell that on 14 June 1986 killed three people and injured 69 in a car bomb attack at Magoo’s Bar on the Durban beachfront. McBride was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. The ANC told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) the attack was meant to take the fight against Apartheid out of the townships, the target being a bar across the road, frequented by off-duty members of the security forces. “We were to kill enemy personnel. That’s it,” said McBride. But the victims were civilians and the TRC said McBride’s reconnaissance was “of a highly amateurish nature”. He was released in 1992 as a political prisoner and then granted amnesty by the TRC.
The story is always mentioned when McBride is discussed (and no doubt forms some of the bias against him) but the bombing was one of the many horrors of the time. What’s more worrying for the country’s police is McBride’s post-94 controversies.
In 1998 McBride was working for the Department of Foreign Affairs when police in Mozambique arrested him on gun-running charges while on an unauthorised visit. He was reportedly being found with a stack of AK-47s and a large amount of cash and tried to flee before being arrested and remained stuck in a Maputo prison for months. Eventually McBride was released, cleared of all charges. He claimed he was working with the National Intelligence Agency to investigate illegal arms trading, but allegations swirled on just what the hell he was doing. Some said he was smuggling weapons to arm SA’s comrades-cum-robbers; others rumours said he was supporting East Timor’s struggle for independence.
In 2000, Western Cape prosecutors decided not to proceed with a case against McBride for assault. He was implicated in the assault of a woman while at an escort agency with none other than underworld boss Cyril Beeka, who was murdered in 2011.
Then, in a case with more back flips than the Chinese gymnastics team, McBride was convicted in 2011 for driving under the influence of alcohol and obstructing the course of justice. In 2006, while he was the Ekurhuleni Metro Police boss, McBride crashed his car after a Christmas party and allegedly had officers help him out of the jam. “Instead of coming clean, you did everything possible to cover your tracks… you are indeed an evil person,” said Magistrate Peet Johnson at sentencing. He described McBride as an “an evil person who has shown a disturbing arrogance and disregard for the law”. The conviction was reversed on appeal when his former colleagues (the affair cost McBride his job) changed their testimony.
Now, McBride is Cabinet’s first choice to lead the police watchdog, IPID. “A letter dated 8 November 2013 has been received from the Minister of Police, requesting the relevant Parliamentary committee to confirm or reject the nomination of Mr Robert John McBride as executive director,” read an innocuous note in Parliament on Tuesday.
Minster Mthethwa believes McBride’s appointment will help put a check on police power and build on the 2011 IPID Act. “This power includes, but is not limited to, the power to stop citizens, the power to search persons, the power to enter premises, the power to arrest as well as the power to seize property. If these powers are unchecked, they are open to abuse,” he said. “We believe Mr McBride’s appointment as head of IPID will help this important institution to achieve [IPID’s] mandate.”
Mthethwa’s spokesperson Zweli Mnisi said the job was publicly advertised and nine candidates were shortlisted. The process was objective and the interview panel included “various ministers including Minister Mthethwa” as well as public service officials, Mnisi told Talk 702. McBride emerged as “the ideal candidate”.
There is nothing that disqualifies McBride for the job, and a press release on Wednesday detailed his resume (extensive, but far less juicy than the controversies): former Ekurhuleni police chief, posts with the Department of Foreign Affairs (which since became DIRCO), a couple of university degrees, and a diploma.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is livid. Shadow Minister of Police Dianne Kohler Barnard slammed the nomination. “IPID – the institution responsible for conducting oversight on SAPS and Metro Police officers – should not be led by such a controversial figure,” she said. “Amongst other duties, the executive director of IPID is required to manage finances; appoint provincial heads and staff; and provide guidelines regarding the investigation and management of cases by officials. The executive director must be suitably qualified for the position, not have previous convictions, and be a person of integrity.”
The DA will vehemently oppose his appointment. Speaking on radio, Kohler Barnard suggested the only reason McBride is being nominated is because he is a loyal ANC cadre who is currently out of a job. Despite the ANC’s majority in Parliament, she said it is still possible to stop McBride’s appointment.
The Inkatha Freedom Party, Freedom Front Plus, and Christian Democratic Party have also denounced the nomination. The Portfolio Committee of Police must accept or reject a “suitably qualified” nomination within 30 days.
The nomination comes at a crucial time for the police. The SAPS suffer from a lack of public trust, fuelled by violent and corrupt officers and the belief that police are often not independent, open to political and financial influence.
There’s a regular cycle of reports of police brutality in the news and the lack of trust in police contributed to the recent mob violence killings in Khutsong. IPID is (was?) investigating the police’s role in the killings of the Marikana mineworkers. And acting IPID executive director Koekie Mbeki announced last month an investigation into Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega for defeating the ends of justice. IPID’s last annual report says it received 6,728 cases, mostly related to SAPS assault, in 2012-13.
The IPID Act, which was hoped would stamp out some of the problems, establishes the organisation “to provide for independent and impartial investigation of identified criminal offences allegedly committed by members of the South African Police Service and Municipal Police Services”. It aims to enhance transparency and accountability. “The IPID aspires to adhere to the highest standards of ethical behaviour, integrity and the continuous application of our values,” says the organisation’s five-year strategic plan.
McBride did not respond to requests to comment on Tuesday. Perhaps he would have repeated his comments after his drunk-driving acquittal, professing his moral standing and innocence: “Justice always comes for me; it just takes a little bit longer than with other people.” Perhaps he would have stressed his credentials for the job and reiterated that he remains a free man.
But how many people would listen? The perception of law and order matters as much as the reality; in that game, President Zuma and his Cabinet lost some more ground on Tuesday. DM
Photo: Robert McBride is seen at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on Thursday, 30 September 2010 during an appeal by the Citizen newspaper against an award of damages and defamation granted to him.The accusations were made against McBride in an editorial in the newspaper in 2003, when McBride was being considered for the post of Ekurhuleni metro police chief. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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