South Africa

Analysis: Campaign to save Phiyega is bad politics backed by alarming argument

By Stephen Grootes 4 August 2015

That our police service is a mess is a statement that brooks no argument. National Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega has had to justify to the person who appointed her, President Jacob Zuma, why she should stay in office. Nine former police officers are in court for the horrific murder of Mido Macia. Crime, and particularly violent crime, has surged in the last two years. Sadly, everyone knows someone who has been asked for a bribe by a cop, metro or otherwise. But instead of addressing the problems forcefully, it appears that at least a part of the police establishment has other task in hand: saving Phiyega’s career by any means. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Stung by claims at the weekend that some of the top brass wanted National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega to go, the “Board of Commissioners issued a public statement indicating that in no uncertain terms that they supported her, and that she should stay on. It was a detailed statement, going through some of the problems in the police and refuting claims where necessary. As a public relations exercise, no matter who was actually responsible for it, it was a neat and clever piece of work. Coming out on a Saturday, before the Sunday papers, it could counter some of the negative messages out there.

Then the wheels came off.

On Monday morning, Deputy Commissioner Lieutenant-General Nobubele Mbekela spoke to 702s Udo Carelse, to answer questions about the statement. In the interview Carelse wanted to know how exactly this statement came into being, who was really behind it, and whether this was a full and proper statement of support for Phiyega. Mbekela indicated that it was. Then things went down the rabbit hole.

Carelse asked: “In your support for the commissioner, do you also see that what the Farlam commission has found against the commissioner is something that must be dealt with?

Mbekela was forthright: We support the national commissioner, even in terms of what the report might be saying we support the national commissioner. We dont waver in that.”

Carelse interjected: Okay, its unconditional.

Its unconditional, she replied. “Its unconditional, whether there is a commission of inquiry or what, its unconditional.

By this stage, Carelse was trying to keep the surprise out of his voice.

Mbekela had much more to say: We still support, unconditionally, the national commissioner. Im saying, I support 100%, we as the board, we support the national commissioner.

Carelse now wanted to make sure hed heard correctly. I stress again, even if the president institutes a commission of inquiry, which like the Farlam commission finds her unfit to hold office, you still support the commissioner?”, he asked.

Back came the refrain: We support, unconditionally support, the national commissioner.

Carelse replied: Does that not mean then, that the board of commissioners in South Africa, disrespects the institutions in this country?

Mbekela headed for the deep end. “It isnt, she replied. “It is even unlike the men of this country who are blatantly attacking the women leadership in this country analyse the people who are making the attacks, ever since the release of the Farlam report, analyse how many of them are men who have actually done that. As a woman I am taking a stance that this is an attack on woman leadership.

Right. She actually said that.

The first impression one has on listening to all of that is that Mbekela simply cannot think on her feet, and really had only one sentence to say. Considering that she is a top manager for the countrys biggest employer, that is more than merely concerning. Considering that all the people she manages have guns, it is simply alarming.

For a start, no one seems to be making a similar argument about women leaders while defending the public protector. Certainly, Thuli Madonsela herself has not tried to do that. Secondly, the people who are attacking Phiyega are not men, they are generally experts in the field. And one of her biggest critics is of course the Democratic Alliance’s shadow police minister, whose name is Diane Kohler-Barnard. Almost half of South Africa’s cabinet is female. No one ever attacks cabinet ministers because of their gender. If only because they wouldnt dare.

There is also a worrying lack of thought in all of this. In the end, Phiyega will go. Maybe not now, maybe only in 10 years. But at some point she will leave. Mbekela, and all of those who signed this statement, will forever be tarnished by what it said. Whoever takes over from Phiyega will never be able to trust them. Their careers’ life expectancy will be the same as Nkosinathi Nhlekos after President Jacob Zuma leaves office, close to nil.

It is also just bad politics. It makes everyone wonder what on earth is going on at national police headquarters. Is someone somewhere printing T-shirts bearing the legend 100% Phiyega?

You also have to ask, why would someone say something like this when their assertions are impossible to substantiate. Certainly, it makes you wonder about the strength of the case for retaining Phiyega. It cannot be very strong if one of her deputies cannot properly justify her own support for the commissioner and has to resort to such a patently untrue argument.

The negative effects of this hopeless campaign will also pile up. Imagine being a junior member of the police, and hearing that interview: would you be inspired? Probably not. Imagine being a more senior officer. Would you think that your chances of promotion would be increased by doing a great job, by being a good independent officer, or by supporting a Phiyega-like leader? Now, imagine you were someone with decent prospects in life, would you considering joining the cops in the first place?

I didnt think so, either.

One of the big achievements of post-liberation South Africa has been the de-politicised nature of the police service. You might think that is hard to justify, but remember what the police were used for before 1990. After 1994, generally speaking, officers have not been used for political purposes. Now we have parts of the police clearly being mobilised behind a particular person, which is incredibly dangerous for the country’s future.

It is obvious that the top police management have taken their eyes off the ball. The murder rate is up. So is the number of hijackings, business robberies and aggravated robberies – the crimes people fear the most. It is of the utmost importance that these issues are addressed, and quickly. But dont worry, the top management clearly have fixing this as their top priority.

Not. DM

Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega briefs reporters on their security plan for the then upcoming Africa Cup of Nations at a news conference in Centurion on Thursday, 17 January 2013. Picture: GCIS/SAPA

Read more:

  • The Institute for Security Studies Johan Burger on leadership within the police in ISS Today.

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