South Africa

South Africa

Rooting out the rot: Police Minister Nhleko’s Sisyphean task

Rooting out the rot: Police Minister Nhleko’s Sisyphean task

Four years later, the stench of crime and corruption left in the wake of convicted police commissioner Jackie Selebi still wafted through the corridors of parliament at the debate on the SAPS budget vote this week. But spare a thought for our newly minted Police Minister, Nkosinathi Nhleko, who has inherited multiple sins of the past and who is going to need big cojones and some potent pesticides to weed out the rot. By MARIANNE THAMM.

After her surprise appointment as the new police commissioner in 2012, Riyah Phiyega, paraphrased a rather quaint observation by Eleanor Roosevelt that a woman is a bit like a tea bag.

When you hold a tea bag, you can’t actually talk about the strength of the tea bag, until, you put that tea bag in boiling water, then you can see the strength of a tea bag… what the world is giving us today is actually providing us with hot water and indeed we would like to jump in, as tea bags, to just show how strong we are,” she told a nonplussed media contingent.

By now, if our police commissioner were indeed a tea bag she would offer a rather strong and bitter brew. Since her appointment, Phiyega has found herself in loads of hot water as well as showing that she is clearly out of her depth – most memorably during her lengthy cross-examination at the Farlam Commission into the killing of 34 miners by the SAPS during the strike at Marikana.

This week, during the police budget vote in parliament, and in an attempt to answer a question by the Freedom Front Plus’s Pieter Groenewald as to when it was that SAPS would be recovering the R17 million in taxpayers money spent defending her predecessor, Jackie Selebi, Phiyega replied in her now characteristic rambling fashion.

Working out just how much Selebi owed the state was complex, she offered. (One would think that the efficient legal team had submitted accounts and that invoices surely must be filed somewhere safe! But hey, we’re allowed to dream.)

First, we had to determine the total costs of that entire action of which a more in depth assessment needed to be made because the principle there is that if you win your case, costs are defrayed and most of you are aware that its been a mixed bag. There are areas where there’s been winning. There’s areas where there’s been losses, so that process took some time,” Phiyega clarified.

She added that once this was done “you then need to allow the lawyers of the person in question… to respond to what is represented before them.”

So, shortly and less opaquely – not in the too distant future thank you very much. Its all well within keeping with the Stalingrad strategy – the art of stalling and delaying – so ably mastered by No 1.

What one can read with a magnifying glass between the lines is that there is clearly a behind-the-scenes attempt at lessening the financial burden for the terminally-ill-but-ok-enough-to-shop Selebi, who was sentenced to a 15-year jail term on charges of corruption relating to his relationship with self-confessed crime boss, Glen Agliotti.

There appears to be a plan afoot for splitting the estimated R17 million owed to taxpayers as Selebi was charged with two main counts and two separate sub counts but was only convicted on one. Not paying the legal bills on the charges he was acquitted of might reduce considerably what he owes South African taxpayers.

Selebi was released in 2010 on medical parole from prison hospital (known colloquially as the ‘politically-connected wing’) where he spent around 200 days of his 15-year term. Although tried, convicted and sentenced, he still receives around R2 million a year in pension and medical benefits.

In this light one can hardly blame the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union POPCRU for seeking to protect the 1,488 SAPS members who were found to have criminal convictions from being deprived of their jobs or their benefits.

In August 2013, acting deputy national commissioner, Lieutenant General, Nkrumah Mazibuko, reported back to a parliamentary committee about an internal audit of police members whose identity numbers and salary records were cross referenced with the national criminal records database.

It was then that the first disclosure that 1,488 members of the service had criminal records for crimes including murder, rape, assault, corruption, drug-trafficking, robbery as well as helping captives to escape. At the time it was revealed that 64 of those members were stationed at police headquarters. A significant number of the convicted criminals in the service had been involved in multiple crimes committed over a period 31 years – between 1978 and 2009 – and as a result the total number of convictions uncovered by the audit stood at 3 204.

Among those with criminal records were high-ranking police officers including a major general, ten brigadiers, 21 colonels, ten majors, 43 lieutenant colonels, 163 captains, 84 lieutenants and 716 warrant officers. At the time, the acting commissioner undertook to rid the service of these “unwanted elements” by June 2014.

The plans, however, were thwarted in June when POPCRU claimed a victory after the Port Elizabeth Labour Court handed down a judgment in favour of the union against the use of Fitness Boards, set up by the national police commissioner, to investigate and take action against those police officers who have criminal records.

POPCRU had sought to have the decision to set up the Fitness Boards in terms of the Section 36 of SAP Act 65 of 1995 declared “unconstitutional, void and without legal force” in relation to those members who had been convicted of an offense and had been sentenced prior to 1 September 2013.

And it was to this matter that our new minister referred (read full speech here) in his speech at the budget vote on Monday when he announced a slew of proposed welcome changes with regard to the recruitment of police as well as variety of legislative and policy reviews due to take place over the next financial year in an attempt to fight crime (including within the SAPS itself no doubt).

And it is here that his reference to reviewing the SAPS Act and aligning it with the Constitution will hopefully enable it to get rid of the criminals among its ranks and who are responsible for sullying the reputation of the SAPS as well as engendering an even deeper lack of confidence in the police.

As part of the process of professionalisation in the police service, we have approved changes to the recruitment strategy of entry level constables with a view to ensure that only the best-suited candidates are recruited into the SAPS. All our new recruits will be taken through rigorous testing for their suitability before they start with their formal training. Further, they will be taken through grooming camps for screening purposes, vetting, written assessments, physical fitness as well as other diagnostic tests on behaviour, patriotisms and culture,” Nhleko said.

He added that these changes had been introduced as part of a “Community Based Recruitment Strategy… aimed at addressing challenges such as pending and or previous convictions, fraudulent qualifications and to avoid nepotism in the recruitment of officers. In terms of this strategy, the role of the community in commenting on their suitability will also assist in completing the 360 degree cycle of suitability testing.”

In future, the minister said, current members of the police service would be taken through “rigorous sessions to understand the code of conduct” and that there would be “zero-tolerance towards corruption and nepotism”.

It is, however, a task that might prove difficult. In 2013 in the light of the first audit on police criminality Africa Check researchers Julian Rademeyer and Kate Wilkinson found that the Independent Police Directorate, a civilian oversight structure tasked with investigating police criminality, “is a watchdog without teeth; understaffed, underfunded and routinely ignored and stymied by the police it is meant to investigate.”

The Minister’s speech was generally well received and the Democratic Alliance’s Shadow Minister for Police, Dianne Kohler Barnard even remarked that Nhleko was a “welcome change” and commended him for “allowing the questions I put to him to be answered in full – no sarcasm, and [with] complete disclosure”.

Barnard however did not mince words (read her full speech here) suggesting she could show the new minister where to source “some of the money to renovate a station or two, starting with the man who was the first non-police political appointment to National Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi”.

We are still feeling the effect of his disastrous term, and what he did to the SAPS and to our reputation abroad is immeasurable. As for the money: according to Treasury Regulations 12.7.1 and 2, he should have started paying the taxpayers the over R17 million 30 days after he lost his appeal.”

The money, she reminded the minister could pay the salaries of over 200 constables for a year.

The South African Police Service has 157,470 members and at the budget vote Nhleko thanked the many “everyday heroes” among its ranks who ensure our safety and security, often at great risk. And while it is the relatively low numbers of corrupt policemen who make headlines there are thousands of other good cops who do not.

Nhleko this week singled out officers who were present at the budget vote including; “Captain Tinus Erasmus, Constable Tunyeko Mongwe and Constable Victor Moloto [from Limpopo] who put their lives at great risk helping crash survivors out of the explosives truck that had crashed only to be at the receiving end of the explosion themselves. Constable Thembakazi Jacobs brings hope to domestic abuse survivors in the Khayelitsha area. And off course, Warrant officer Nico Smallboy, who is a reservist who is our worthy winner of the National Prestige Award.”

The minister’s speech this week was encouraging and his term of office has begun on a decidedly positive note. The members of the South African Police service as well as the citizens of South Africa deserve better and perhaps now is the time. DM

Photo: South African Police Services block a main road to prevent un-armed miners from the Anglo Platinum Mine from reaching the police station as the marchers attempted to march to the station, Rustenburg, South Africa, 16 September 2012. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

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