The collateral damage of South Africa’s police leadership feud sees civilians vulnerable while crime spirals

The collateral damage of South Africa’s police leadership feud sees civilians vulnerable while crime spirals
Khehla Sitole, national police commissioner. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

The leadership war between the police commissioner and the minister - just one of the issues at hand – adds to spiralling crime and ineffective policing, and leaves civilians and SAPS members vulnerable.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

“Politics is killing the police,” Peter Ntsime – South African Police Union

On 10 March, Mthokozisi Ntumba, a 35-year-old husband and father of one, was shot dead by police after leaving a clinic in Braamfontein in central Johannesburg and stepping out into a student protest.

He joins a growing list of civilians killed by police during protest action. There was Andries Tatane, Nathaniel Julies, the mine workers of Marikana. The list is long and depressing.

According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s annual report, SAPS members killed 538 people in 2017/18 and 440 in 2018/19.

Entire commissions have been established – the 2014 Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry, and the 2015 report of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry – to highlight and deal with deficiencies in the SAPS and responses to combating crime and violence.

And still the SAPS is unable to deal with protests adequately, as evidenced by the tragedy in Braamfontein when a young man died needlessly at the hands of the state.

“Someone just went crazy,” Police Minister Bheki Cele told the press gathered outside Ntumba’s home during a visit on 11 March.

Meanwhile, 77 SAPS officers were killed in 2019/20 and 29 have been murdered since April 2020.

This, according to then deputy commissioner Bonang Mgwenya, who spoke at the October 2020 funeral of the assassinated Anti-Gang Unit section leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear.

Kinnear was killed in a hit outside his home in September 2020. He had been investigating fellow officers.

It has since also come to light that the SAPS may have “lost” eight million pieces of evidence, including DNA samples, as a result of a long-running legal stand-off involving Forensic Data Analysts (FDA), a private company that sold and installed SAPS’ track and trace systems.

The feud between the SAPS, the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) and the FDA led to the SAPS withholding payment to the FDA. The FDA, in turn, “switched off” its systems. This, too, has crippled the SAPS’ crime-fighting capacity.

Keith Keating, director of the FDA, has offered the entire system to the SAPS for R560-million, an offer that National Commissioner Khehla Sitole in March 2020 accepted in a letter to Vhonani Mufamadi, the chair of the FDA board. The FDA has, over the years, earned billions from doing business with the state.

Keating has been accused of giving kickbacks to former acting national commissioner Khomotso Phahlane.

When the Hawks raided Keating’s premises in 2017 (a move Keating challenged), Colonel Kobus Roelofse told the court the warrants were related to a 2016 R45-million police forensics contract that had been recommended and paid in one day, in favour of Keating’s FDA. A further R7-million, unaccounted for in the tender, was allegedly also paid to Keating’s company, rounding off the total to R52-million.

This legal tussle between the SAPS, Sita and the FDA behind the scenes has led to a serious backlog in the testing of DNA samples, including those for gender-based violence and rape cases.

It is this travesty that prompted Police Committee chair, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, on 10 March to lash out at SAPS leadership, Cele and all parties concerned. She issued what amounted to a decree for all roleplayers to resolve the matter.

Joemat-Pettersson paid scant regard to the separation of powers as committee chair and ordered Sitole and Cele to “halt all court battles and for all systems to be immediately switched on”.

She threatened to write to the speaker to request an investigation and said she would, if she had to, take legal advice “on how to solve this matter.”

“The police cannot investigate the police,” she said.

“I am the chair, I will be held accountable if there is any commission of inquiry like the Zondo Commission, I will be called, my memory will be tested and this is why I keep meticulous minutes,” she said.

She warned the SAPS leadership and the minister that she would be monitoring them all and wanted the backlog in the processing of DNA attended to.

Joemat-Pettersson said she spoke as a mother and for  “every rape victim” and expressed her alarm at how everyone involved in the dispute with the FDA had “run around in circles”.

While the elephants like Sitole, Cele and Joemat-Pettersson fight, on the field, citizens and SAPS members themselves are being trampled on.

Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) spokesperson Richard Mamabolo, speaking during a mediated discussion with journalist Stephen Grootes on SAFM, reminded listeners that only one South African police commissioner had served their full term since 1996 and that was George Fivaz.

From Jackie Selebi through to Bheki Cele himself, Riah Phiyega and more recently Phahlane, none have left office with their heads held high.

For now, Mamabolo added, “we see a thin line between operational and ministerial. Who plays which role? This needs to be clarified.”

Peter Ntsime, acting deputy general secretary of the South African Police Union (Sapu) said that “politics kills the police”. “We need to know what is the responsibility of the police commissioner and the minister.”

Cele had been seen to be interfering in operations, said Ntsime, which is the exclusive domain of the national commissioner.

“We have members being killed while they fight over the grabber and money. Members do not get a danger allowance, they are not getting increases,” said Ntsime.

He added that South Africa was “a country at war” and that focus was being lost by the sideshow of whatever was playing itself out between the national commissioner and the minister.

Eldred de Klerk, director of the African Centre for Security and Intelligence Praxis, said it was problematic putting a “personality” before the office, and when a distinction could not be made between public service and the state apparatus.

Cele, said De Klerk, needed to stay out of the terrain that was the responsibility of the national commissioner, who is appointed by the president, as is Cele, on contract.

The national commissioner needed to receive strategic and policy direction and acted on behalf of the citizens of the country.

“They don’t really have to get along [Cele and Sitole]. Their roles are tied up in their offices,” said De Klerk.

Cele is prone to public spectacle and is quick to rush to the scene of high-profile crimes to promise that something will be done. It was Cele who during lockdown ordered SAPS members in Cape Town to take action against a film crew on a beach. Cele is not empowered in any way to issue orders to SAPS members.

This is an operational matter that falls under the national commissioner.

However, Cele has called for an inquiry into Sitole’s fitness to hold office in light of a recent court finding that the commissioner had breached his duties.

This very public face-off between Sitole and Cele was causing, said De Klerk, “great insecurity and distraction”.

Political interference in law enforcement occurred in all democracies but policy and regulatory prescripts clearly set out the role of each player.

The position of the national commissioner was essentially the equivalent of that of a director-general, he said.

“He signs a contract, there are performance agreements. And even if the motivation of the national commissioner or the minister are party political, the question is whether they have broken any of the policy regulatory prescripts or were not performing in terms of their contracts.”

An inquiry now into Sitole, said De Klerk, would bring instability. The SAPS would continue to function, however, as there were clear lines of reporting from national to provincial, down to station commissioners.

How do we stop a repeat of appointing commissioners who later turn out to have less than what it requires to perform the massive job, managing a service of 187,358 members?

Writing for the Institute of Security Studies in February this year, Johan Burger and Stuart Mbanyele noted that the “government’s denial of the crisis may be caused by the fact that it is rooted in the long-standing and persistent problem of poor leadership in the South African Police Service”.

South Africa’s political leaders had not recognised that policing was an important profession that required high levels of skill and integrity, they said.

While the SAPS has less than 200,000 members, the private security industry registered more than two million officers, according to the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority’s 2019/20 annual report.

SAPS salaries, Parliament was informed by Cele in 2019, would reach R87.2-billion by 2021/2022, reflecting an increase of 52% since 2015/16, when the budget was R57.4-billion. Expenditure on SAPS salaries made up more than 78% of the total budget for 2019/2020.

Meanwhile billions have been lost to fraud and corruption, which has seen the arrest of more than 40 SAPS members in the past 12 months.

“The loss of public trust and confidence,” said De Klerk, was a key issue with regards to the SAPS and law enforcement.

A 2012 National Victims of Crime Survey revealed back then that police corruption was the second most prevalent form of public sector corruption as reported by victims.

Burger and Mbanyele noted that “far-reaching interventions” were needed in the SAPS, including reviewing current systems of recruitment, training, promotion, discipline “and equipping police officers – all of which generally seem to be failing”.

“This is all possible in a relatively short period if there is a strong, ethical and highly skilled top management team in place,” concluded Burger and Mbanyele. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Joe Soap says:

    Both Cele and Sitole need to go.

  • John Hughes says:

    Hi Marianne. Thank you for article. I recently subscribed to my first online paper. Enjoying the DM 👍Your blurb about you says maybe you would’ve preferred being a plumber? Definitely less s*** to shovel through there to understand root cause!! 😅 Thank you for your bravery.

  • Roger Sheppard says:

    Rather ironic to read that the dep-general secretary of a trade union states: “politics kills the police”! What is ever an intrusion into any life but when a trade union is introduced – default intrusion!
    Somehow still, the notion/concept of a ‘police trade union’ irks – a contradiction in terms!

    • Simon D says:

      Unions are the death of anything that works.

      But I do feel for the good cops who just want to be resourced, supported and go about their jobs. Instead you have a buffoon as a leader (Cele) and Commissioner who is grossly incapable, all under the banner of the rot JZ left the corrupt ANC with.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Reform/ renewal costs, even more, Marianne. Is privatising the policing of the country our safest/ most accountable option? Would like to read an opinion piece on this that weighs the pros and cons.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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