South Africa

Phiyega inquiry: Police chief destined for inglorious end to her term

By Ranjeni Munusamy 23 September 2015

The Presidency announced on Tuesday that a board of inquiry is to investigate allegations of misconduct by National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, stemming from the recommendations of the Farlam Commission into the events at Marikana in August 2012. Once again, a national police commissioner is to be probed, and like her predecessors, Phiyega will fight to keep a job. Irrespective of the outcome, this process does not serve as justice for the killings at Marikana, neither does it hold Phiyega to account for her overall poor track record as the police chief. What we have to look forward to is a long, expensive process with probably a whole lot more bumbling from the police commissioner. BY RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

President Jacob Zuma seemed to be powering through his overflowing inbox on Tuesday. On Tuesday night, the Presidency announced that Zuma had decided to fill the six-month vacancy in Cabinet left by the death of former Public Service and Administration Minister Collins Chabane. Advocate Ngoako Ramathlodi was moved to the portfolio and Member of Parliament Mosebenzi Joseph Zwane, a former MEC in the Free State, has been appointed as the new Mineral Resources Minister.

Earlier in the day, the Presidency announced Zuma had requested Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to reinitiate the process to appoint a new commissioner at the Independent Electoral Commission and that the president had signed a Special Investigating Unit proclamation to investigate the Buffalo City Municipality. The Presidency also announced that Zuma would be leading the South African delegation, which includes nine ministers and a deputy minister, to the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

But the big news of the day was that the third National Police Commissioner in a row is in the line of fire with the announcement that the president has appointed a board of inquiry to investigate General Riah Phiyega’s fitness for office. The Presidency also said Zuma had given Phiyega till Monday 28 September to make representations on why she should not be suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. Phiyega had earlier asked the president for more time and information to respond to his letter informing her of her possible suspension.

If there was one thing the Farlam Commission of Inquiry made a very specific recommendation on, it was that an inquiry be held into Phiyega and former North West provincial commissioner Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo’s fitness to hold office. The Farlam Commission did not say why the Marikana massacre happened or who was responsible for it, but the report made it clear that Phiyega was a terrible witness and tried to mislead the commission. Judge Ian Farlam also did not look favourably on Phiyega’s gung-ho statements to police officers after the Marikana massacre.

A day after the massacre, Phiyega and former police minister Nathi Mthethwa addressed a parade of the police members involved in the operation. Phiyega’s speech included the following:

“I come before you to actually say, trying as it may be, mourning as we are, let us take note of the fact that whatever happened represents the best of responsible policing.

“You did what you did, because you were being responsible, you were making sure that you continued to live your oath of ensuring that South Africans are safe, and that you equally are a citizen of this country and safety starts with you.”

Farlam says in the report: “When one bears in mind that the statement was made on the day after 34 civilians had been killed by members of the SAPS and the President announced that a Commission of Inquiry would be established, the statement that ‘whatever happened represents the best possible policing’ was singularly inappropriate because it set out what was from then on to be the official police line: that no blame at all attached to the police for what happened because they had been responsible in doing what they did.”

Farlam goes on to say: “This was calculated to effect a closing of the ranks, encouraging those who had participated in the operation to withhold contrary information from the Commission and indeed to deny that mistakes had been made and things had been done that could not be described as ‘the best of possible policing’.”

A three-person board of inquiry will investigate, among other things, whether these remarks “would have been understood to be an unqualified endorsement of the police action and thereby having the consequence of undermining, frustrating or otherwise impeding the work of the commission”, the Presidency said.

The members of the board of inquiry are Judge Cornelis Johannes Claasen (chairman), Advocate Bernard Sakhile Khuzwayo and Advocaste Anusha Rawjee. They will also probe whether:

  • the National Commissioner acting together with other leadership of the South African Police Service or alone, misled the Commission by concealing that it had made the decision to implement a “tactical option”, taken at the National Management Forum (NMF) meeting on or about 15 August 2012;

  • the decision taken to implement the “tactical option” ought reasonably to have foreseen the tragic and catastrophic consequences which ensued;

  • the report prepared by the National Commissioner for the President of the Republic on the 16 August 2012 and the media statement subsequently issued on 17 August 2012 were deliberately amended to conceal the fact that there were two shooting incidents (Scene 1 and Scene 2), resulting in misleading the public that all the deaths had occurred at Scene 1 which arose out of members of SAPS having to defend themselves from an advancing mass;

  • the overall testimony by the National Commissioner at the Commission was in keeping with the office which she holds and the discharge of her duties commensurate therewith.

It is almost painful to think about Phiyega sitting in front of another inquiry headed by a judge, lumbering her way through questions about her conduct and trying again to evade responsibility for the series of bad decisions taken by the police at Marikana. There is no saying how long the inquiry will take to set up, how many witnesses will be called and how long before the president is presented with another report that he would need to “apply his mind to”.

Phiyega’s predecessor Bheki Cele was suspended in October 2011 due to allegations of corruption in connection with a lease deal for the police buildings in Pretoria in Durban. In June 2012, Zuma announced he was releasing Cele from his duties after a board of inquiry found he was unfit for office and should be removed. Prior to that Jackie Selebi, who served as National Police Commissioner from 2000, was placed on an “extended leave of absence” in January 2008, before he was charged with fraud and corruption. Cele was appointed in July 2009.

Phiyega was appointed as the police chief in June 2012 and two months later had to contend with the Marikana massacre. It has haunted her time in office and her performance at the commission exposed her as being out of her depth for the position she holds. Pressure remains on government to act to ensure justice and accountability for the events at Marikana, and the announcement of the board of inquiry is the first step in that direction. As the person at the top of the chain of command in the police, the buck stops with Phiyega. But her alleged attempt to conceal evidence and mislead the commission is what will seal her fate.

Even if the faith Zuma had in Phiyega when he appointed her, though she had no policing experience, has evaporated, he cannot simply fire her. He is legally compelled to institute an inquiry into her fitness for office and can only act on the recommendations of that inquiry. But indications are that she is considered to be a dead weight who has failed to earn public confidence during her tenure.

Addressing the police portfolio committee in Parliament earlier this month, Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko said the Marikana report presented a “moment of truth” to transform policing in South Africa. He made it clear that there would be a complete overhaul, from demilitarising and professionalising the service to changing the culture, equipment and training.

With Phiyega still stuck defending her terrain and the police actions, clearly she is not the appropriate person to lead that process. There was also antagonism towards her and the provincial commissioners from the police committee members, especially the ANC, over a media statement in which the commissioners pledged support for her. The writing was on the wall then that Phiyega had no political cover.

From the moment she was appointed, Phiyega set the tone for her controversial and somewhat unorthodox tenure by describing her lack of experience as such: “I have never been a police officer, but you don’t have to be a drunkard to own a bottle store.”

She was also the first person to introduce “firepool” to the political lexicon by explaining at a media briefing in December 2013 that the Nkandla swimming pool was a fire-fighting tool. She said there were no fire extinguishers or fire brigades in rural areas. “Best we know is to take a bucket, dip it in water and throw it on the fire”. This is a somewhat different explanation to the one that emerged subsequently in Nhleko’s infamous video production of the firepool demonstration.

Phiyega served her political masters in other respects as under her leadership, experienced officers were weeded out of the police management, the Hawks and Crime Intelligence. Now it appears it is her turn to join the never-ending parade out of the police service.

But first she looks set to undergo another bruising round before the board of inquiry. One thing is certain, the time in office of South Africa’s first woman national police commissioner is destined for an inglorious end. DM

Photo: The Farlam Commission into the Marikana Massacre sitting in Rustenburg, with Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega being questioned. Photo Greg Marinovich. Rustenburg, North West, South Africa. 2013, April 5.

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