South Africa

Dead woman walking: Riah Phiyega fights back

By Ranjeni Munusamy 13 November 2015

Suspended National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega is fighting for her survival after taking a double hit from her political boss and Parliament, which she says is "vindictive" and a "kangaroo court". Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko announced that a ministerial reference group had found Phiyega guilty of fraud, perjury and gross misconduct. The police portfolio committee adopted a report recommending Phiyega face another board of inquiry into her conduct. This is on top of the board of inquiry appointed by President Jacob Zuma to probe her fitness for office as recommended by the Farlam Commission into the Marikana massacre. Phiyega seems to be a marked woman. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

At a breakfast meeting with editors in September 2013, I asked President Jacob Zuma whether he had confidence in National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega. It was year after the Marikana massacre, which drew intense public hostility towards her and questions about her ability and judgment. The meeting was happening at a time Phiyega was embroiled in another controversy after she announced the appointment of a new provincial commissioner for Gauteng and then overturned it shortly afterwards when it was exposed Lieutenant General Bethuel Mondli Zuma was facing charges of drunk driving.

President Zuma was effusive in his praises, saying he was confident in Phiyega’s ability to do her job. “She’s competent. I think she’s able to do her job. So far, I think she’s absolutely wonderful,” Zuma said, adding that she was doing South African women proud by serving in the position.

It is safe to say that two years later, neither Zuma nor Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko think Phiyega is “absolutely wonderful”. If they did, she would still be enjoying the political protection she had earlier in her term, even after her handling of the Marikana massacre, and not the multiple onslaught she is facing now.

It was clear that relations between Phiyega and Zuma had broken down when the presidency issued a statement on 31 July this year stating that the president had invited her to respond to the Marikana report by no later than that day. “As at 22h00 on 31 July 2015, General Phiyega had not yet submitted her response to the president,” the statement said. The next morning, the presidency issued another statement saying Phiyega had submitted her response “just before 23h00 last night”.

This revealed that the lines of communication between the national commissioner’s office and the presidency were not exactly strong and healthy.

If there was a cooling of relations between the police commissioner and the president, her relationship with the police minister has become positively glacial. Daily Maverick understands that there was virtually no communication between Nhleko and Phiyega in the time before her suspension and a palpable breakdown of trust on both sides.

Nhleko announced the outcome of a probe by a ministerial reference group he set up last September into allegations and complaints against Phiyega. He said Phiyega had committed criminal and procedural offences in her role as national commissioner.

The findings against her include that she removed two deputy commissioners after they refused to accept demotion in contravention of the Labour Relations Act; that she was guilty of fraud for making former acting national commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi sign a backdated performance agreement, claiming he performed well at work when he was, in fact, at home; that she was guilty of perjury for lying to the court in the Richard Mdluli case; and that she should face disciplinary steps for tipping off Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer that criminal charges being investigated against him.

Nhleko said that three teams would be established to implement the recommendations. The ministerial reference group did not hear Phiyega’s response to all the allegations and complaints against her due to alleged “non-cooperation” on her part.

But Daily Maverick understands that in an exchange of correspondence with the minister’s office when the reference group was set up, Phiyega had asked for clarity about the investigation. She also asked to discuss the complaints against her before the reference group began their work. It is understood that Phiyega requested that the ministerial reference group be properly vetted as they would have access to confidential records of the South African Police Service. She apparently received no response from Nhleko and the inquiry went ahead without her participation.

To add to her woes, the parliamentary police portfolio committee adopted a report on Wednesday recommending Phiyega face another board of inquiry into her conduct during a meeting of the Board of Commissioners in mid July. The Board of Commissioners is a structure made up of the national and provincial police commissioners.

The portfolio committee found in spite of a conflict of interest, Phiyega participated in discussions on the Farlam Commission recommendations, and influenced her subordinates to issue a media statement supporting her.

Phiyega would have to face all these processes simultaneously while having to appear before a board of inquiry into her fitness for office regarding her role in the Marikana massacre and testimony to the Farlam Commission of Inquiry.

With no political support and an avalanche of allegations and findings against her, Phiyega is destined to follow her two predecessors in an ignominious exit as national police commissioner. But, she is not going without a fight.

Phiyega has hired a PR firm to represent her, which issued a statement on her behalf on Thursday evening calling the actions against her “malicious”, “vindictive” and the ministerial reference group a “kangaroo court”. She said both the ministerial and parliamentary processes against her were “grossly unlawful and unethical resulting in my decision to seek legal counsel”.

“Common in both of these reports is the fact that the authors never, at any point during their investigations, engaged with me despite attempts on my behalf to avail myself for comment and explanation. They then proceeded in reaching findings and passing judgements against me calling into question not only my ethics and conduct but causing immense damage to my reputation amongst the public,” Phiyega said.

She said both the reports served “only as a malicious, vindictive attempt to create a distraction for me ahead of the board of inquiry that has been instituted by the president”. Phiyega disclosed that she only became aware of the reports against her through the media.

She said she did not know who made up the ministerial reference group but the process was “unlawful”. “The platform and process they used is similar to that of a kangaroo court, since they have been void of following prescribed methods laid out in our legislative framework.

“If these parties really had the intent to seek justice on these allegations, they would have invited me to share my version of events and account for my actions before drawing these detrimental findings,” Phiyega said. She also said Nhleko had “no authority or jurisdiction” to conclude she should be prosecuted for fraud, found guilty of perjury and misconduct.

Apart from seeking legal counsel, Phiyega said she had been placed in a situation “where I have no other option but to seek recourse for these baseless allegations and recommendations”.

If there was animosity before, now Nhleko’s announcement and Phiyega’s response would have crushed any chance of her returning to her position. Not that there was ever any chance that Phiyega could have succeeded in her job when she was set up to fail.

Phiyega was appointed into the position not in the interests of good policing or the security of the country but because her political bosses needed someone they could control. They had purged the police management of people with experience and political weight. Phiyega had no political ties and no knowledge of the security sector. She was wholly dependent on the support of her political masters and her subordinates to survive.

When the political support dried up, Phiyega was finished. The support of her subordinates is now part of the ammunition against her.

It seems that being national police commissioner is not about the safety of the South African public. In the litany of charges against Phiyega, none relate to the crime rate, police brutality, police killings, the performance of the police, arrest and prosecution rates, and the image of the service under her charge. Surely those should be the primary issues she is judged on? Regarding the Marikana massacre, neither Phiyega nor anyone under her is being held accountable for the deaths of 34 people shot down on 16 August 2012. And yet there is absolutely no doubt that police officers shot them dead.

Phiyega is the ultimate scapegoat as a result of a political fallout. She might stage an almighty fight back but the axe is ready to fall. And that poisoned chalice is ready to be passed to the next hapless contender for South Africa’s top cop. DM

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


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