South Africa

South Africa

Phiyega: Alone and under fire

Phiyega: Alone and under fire

President Zuma is weighing up Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega's response to the Marikana report's findings and deciding whether to hold an inquiry into her fitness to hold office. On Wednesday, Phiyega was isolated as, in an unprecedented move, provincial commissioners were forced to retract their public support for their embattled boss. By GREG NICOLSON.

The men and women in blue spoke one after the other. Wearing their SAPS leather jackets and epaulettes each of them made the humiliating walk to the microphone. The Deputy Minister of Police Maggie Sotyu – who last week said the worst criminals should be treated as “outcasts, who must neither have place in the society nor peace in their cells! They must be treated as cockroaches!” – set the moral tone.

The country’s provincial police commissioners followed and withdrew their comments supporting Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega and apologised to the country and President Zuma. Their back-tracking followed a joint statement widely criticised for trying to undermine Zuma’s task of weighing up the Marikana Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations.

On 1 August the SAPS board of commissioners faced media reports that members had lost faith in Phiyega. In a statement, which was reportedly distributed to all police officers, to counter the claims and confront what they saw as pinning all police problems on the national commissioner, every provincial commissioner as well as top SAPS leaders declared their “full support” for Phiyega. Deputy Police Commissioner Nobubele Mbekela added on Talk Radio 702 that regardless of what the Marikana report says she supports Phiyega unconditionally. She also accused Phiyega’s critics of sexism.

Despite her strident defence earlier in the month, Mbekela told Parliament’s Police Committee on Wednesday, “We regret, honourable chairperson, that the statement did what we never intended to do and it will never happen again.”

We don’t believe it’s proper for serving members of the police management to come with statements of support that may be construed as influencing the process. That’s improper,” said committee chairperson Francois Beukman earlier this month.

Grilled by the committee on Wednesday, SAPS spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale said the provincial commissioners agreed to release a statement supporting Phiyega in a meeting in July. He listed the members in that meeting and neglected to include Phiyega. Pushed, he admitted that Phiyega was present but said she did not sign off on the statement.

Sotyu said the police ministry had not approved the statement. “It’s not the first time that a national police commissioner has been challenged but there was never a time when colleagues made such statements,” she said.

Members of the committee were scathing, criticising the police for playing politics rather than focusing on policing. Pieter Groenewald from Freedom Front Plus said, “Do you think that we are idiots? Do you think the national commissioner can chair a meeting and not say anything? I now understand the Farlam commission. You have learnt well from your national commissioner. You are an insult to the South African Police Service.” The DA’s Kohler Barnard questioned Phiyega’s influence: “She sat there while her praise singers worked out how to make her life better. You know what the Marikana report said and that is why you sent out the statement.”

The Marikana report hammered Phiyega and she has born much of the criticism since its release. Essentially, it found she lied about operational decisions and evaded critical questions. She set a bad example for police officers after the massacre. She deliberately misled the public about the details of the killings and she criticised any of her allies who went against her.

The commission recommended an inquiry be held into Phiyega’s fitness to hold office. President Zuma allowed her to respond to the allegations against her, which she submitted in the last hours of July, reportedly claiming she shouldn’t be singled out for the massacre and that she’d only been in the job for two months before Marikana occurred.

The statement from her provincial commissioners represents a pattern seen throughout the commission. Stick together. Ignore all of the evidence. Blame anyone, but not the police. Refuse to accept responsibility.

While Phiyega has been trying to defend herself since the release of the Marikana report, this time her colleagues have been caught out. They finally stepped on the wrong toes – Zuma’s. MPs across the political spectrum suggested the officers had been trying to influence Zuma to save their boss.

The public dressing-down of her key allies leaves Phiyega in a precarious position. Zuma is currently weighing up her response to the Marikana report’s findings and deciding whether to hold an inquiry into her fitness to hold office. Wednesday’s portfolio committee meeting shows there is political will to confront the SAPS’s defence of its own and isolated Phiyega. Now Zuma must decide whether it’s time to officially investigate and potentially fire her. DM

Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega holds a news conference near Mooi Nooi in the North West on Friday, 17 August 2012 following Marikana massacre. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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