Just over three years after Riah Phiyega was appointed national police commissioner, the inevitable happened. She was suspended by President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday, joining the list of her predecessors who have shared a similar fate. By MANDY WIENER.
Over the past decade and a half, South Africa has had three national police commissioners suspended and three acting commissioners – not exactly the confident leadership required in a country where crime remains a public terror and an apparently insurmountable challenge.
Phiyega has been placed on leave with full pay with immediate effect, pending the outcome of an inquiry into her fitness to hold office. She has been accused of misconduct over her handling of the Marikana shooting in which police killed 34 miners, just two months after she took office.
For an incident of the scale of Marikana to occur so soon after her appointment was crippling for Phiyega. A professional officer with a lifetime of experience would have struggled to survive it. For a businesswoman with a social welfare background and no notable policing credentials, the shooting was the premature death knell for a career that had barely even begun. There was no coming back from it, regardless of how hard she clawed.
When Phiyega was appointed police commissioner in June 2012, those who had worked with her in the corporate environment were full of praise for her leadership abilities and expertise in industry. But policing experts and hardy old cops all felt she was not the right person for the job. She was a ‘haasievrou’, police slang for a civilian, a weak, startled deer lost in the headlights.
A career cop was what was required – someone who would command respect, lead with authority and who had been through the ranks of the service. History had shown that swashbuckling, smooth talking politicians with poor administrative skills and appetites for the good life were not prime candidates for the position. But Phiyega worked hard to allay concerns.
Two weeks after assuming control of the South African Police Service (SAPS), she granted me an interview. Fifteen months after that, after the Marikana affair, she again allowed me to sit with her in her office on the seventh floor of the Wachthuis Building in central Pretoria. On both occasions she was warm, engaging and affable. She greeted me with a maternal hug and spoke about her family, how she wanted to bring a feminine touch to her office with an overflowing bouquet of flowers and was open and honest about what a “huge task” the job was. At the time, I worried that she was too soft, too nice to be the country’s top cop.
Above all, she was hopeful, confident and upbeat. She wanted South Africans to “take comfort in knowing that crime is progressively going down”. She gave the impression that she believed she was capable of steering the SAPS ship, despite her lack of credentials and experience in the policing sector. Who can forget her famous “you don’t need to be a drunkard to run a bottle store” gem? But despite her empathy and the commitment to the cause, Phiyega never won the hearts and minds of the country. She never earned the confidence of the people after Marikana. She was seen as lost, overwhelmed and detached.
At one point, just when there was a glimmer of hope that she could recover some semblance of credibility, she made an appointment that left her with egg on her face. She named Mondli Zuma as Gauteng’s police commissioner and within two hours was forced to do an about-turn after it was revealed that he had criminal charges pending against him. It was laughable and Phiyega was horribly embarrassed. The debacle merely reinforced perceptions that she was out of her depth and to an extent bore out predictions that she would be misled by her generals, who must have known about the pending cases but had chosen not to inform her.
Phiyega’s performance at the Farlam commission and her general handling of the Marikana affair during her tenure left a bitter taste and as a result there was a swell of criticism of her. But there were other incidents too that contributed to the negative public image.
In 2013, Phiyega was slammed for apparently tipping off then Western Cape commissioner General Arno Lamoer about an investigation into his dealings by crime intelligence. It was reported that their telephone conversations had been recorded by crime intelligence operatives monitoring Lamoer’s phone calls. Regardless of this, Phiyega denied tipping off Lamoer. While a complaint was laid against her with police watchdog the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the National Prosecuting Authority decided not to prosecute her.
It also emerged this week that IPID boss Robert McBride also sent a letter to Police Minister Nathi Nhleko in January this year, calling for Phiyega to be suspended. This involved an entirely separate incident. McBride accused Phiyega of failing to take action against three KwaZulu-Natal officers allegedly implicated in corruption.
Aside from the leadership politics and shenanigans, Phiyega also appeared to fail where it mattered most to the man in the street. She was doing a bad job of bringing down crime and stopping the bad guys. According to the latest crime statistics, murder increased by nearly 5% across the country, more cops were arrested for committing crimes themselves and, alarmingly, she was doing little to stem the slaughter of officers on duty.
Civil society, opposition parties and the vocal Twitterati decided it was time for her to go and nothing she could say or do would affect perceptions. She became resistant and defiant, choosing to dig in her heels and fight. Ironically, with her back against the wall, she showed the aggression and gumption required to lead a police service. This was evident in the SMS she sent to the DA’s then shadow police minister Dianne Kohler Barnard:
“I am black, proud, capable and get it clear you can take nothing from me, eat your heart out. I am not made by you and cannot be undone by you. Riah Phiyega.”
She must have known the end was nigh and her days were numbered. She would have felt sidelined and unsupported.
When the Presidency announced on Wednesday that Phiyega had been suspended, I could not help but feel a pang of pity for her. The job of national police commissioner in this country is a poisoned chalice. If you are handed the position, sadly, you are doomed to fail. Yes, Phiyega must take a degree of responsibility for accepting the job and blindly believing that she could succeed where others had failed. At the end of the day, responsibility for her actions and decisions sit with her. She is the boss and the buck stops with her. But the bulk of the blame must be attributed to Zuma, who has an atrocious history of ill-informed appointments. He never should have offered her the job. It makes one wonder whether his desire to have a pliable, loyal cadre in such an important position trumped considerations such as experience and competence.
Now, as was the case when both Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele were suspended, a career cop has been named acting commissioner. It could even be argued that in the past, when Tim Williams and Lucky Mkhwanazi were in charge, the organisation was at its most stable, devoid of political shenanigans and poisonous agendas.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Lieutenant-General Johannes Phahlane is temporarily in charge. He’s currently the head of the SAPS forensic services and is held in relatively high esteem by his colleagues. Some have described him as a stickler for process and a ‘by the book’ cop who is confident and popular. He has been through the ranks, having worked in personnel management and headed up the organisation’s basic training division. He also has the academic qualifications to back up his experience.
But of course, he is not without taint. Two years ago, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union accused him of ignoring evidence presented to him about corruption and mismanagement on his watch at the forensic services. They claimed he had ignored this evidence and had also failed to act on allegations of sexual harassment and sabotage of criminal cases by members of his division. In response, Phahlane sued three lower-ranking police officers who had blown the whistle and the union for defamation. He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.
Literally within hours of Phiyega vacating her seat at Parliament’s police portfolio committee on Wednesday, Phahlane had to occupy it. He told the committee they need not worry about the leadership issues in the police and that the top brass were prepared to do what was required of them. “We will, in the absence of the national commissioner, steer this organisation to a direction. We respect the decision of the president to allow due processes to take place,” said Phahlane.
While the career cops temporarily take back the levers of power at Wachthuis, Riah Phiyega will now focus her attention on the inquiry into her fitness to hold office. She will be concerned with retaining her integrity and proving her credibility. We know from experience that it will be a long and arduous journey and despite the findings, will see her continue to receive her monthly pay check and probably accept a golden handshake at the end.
In all likelihood though, she will struggle to achieve the outcome she really wants, and that is to prove to the country that she was capable of doing the job. Everybody knew the dice were loaded, perhaps excepting her.
If Zuma is to take anything away from yet another failure at the SAPS, he must think long and hard about who he appoints as Phiyega’s permanent replacement. The country deserves a career cop with credentials finally. The job of national police commissioner should be about skills and delivery, not politics. Will Zuma finally accept these simplest of truths? DM
Photo: National police commissioner Riah Phiyega briefs reporters on their security plan for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations at a news conference in Centurion on Thursday, 17 January 2013. Picture: GCIS/SAPA
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