At a crossroads: Disgraced SA Police Service is set for a year of reckoning
Scandals that blew up in 2021 have led the SA Police Service to a crossroads: it now either gets cleaned up, or the country sinks further into lawlessness.
Instead of being a solid crime-fighting force, the South African Police Service (SAPS) all but imploded in 2021, becoming an increasingly chaotic arena of infighting, backstabbing and accusations.
From top to bottom, it was plagued by scandals: the country’s top cop Khehla Sitole faced suspension; the commander of the police’s kidnapping task team was arrested in April, as reported by Daily Maverick; and several other police officers were detained for an array of crimes around the country.
Dishonesty in policing and intelligence services enables – and allows – organised crime to thrive. It also equates to aspects of the state fighting each other, weakening governance and putting South Africa’s security at immense risk.
The police service is at a crossroads. Here, we explore some of the issues that may determine which path the SAPS will take in 2022.
Some clarity should be given about the future of National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole, appointed during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.
It was found Sitole and two of his deputies, Francina Ntombenhle Vuma and Lebeoana Jacob Tsumane, failed to assist an Independent Police Investigative Directorate investigation (Ipid) into the attempted procurement of a R45-million “grabber” surveillance device ahead of the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec in 2017.
It has been a shambolic year for the top cop. Sitole has had to deal with officers being arrested for several reasons, including suspected underworld collusion; the service has been plagued by allegations of irregular expenditure on personal protective equipment (PPE); and let’s not forget the attempted insurrection in July 2021 that saw more than 300 people killed during looting and unrest.
This all points to a severely weakened police service under Sitole’s leadership.
In October, President Cyril Ramaphosa said he had served Sitole a notice of suspension in September and had invited Sitole to make representations on this. Sitole apparently did so and Ramaphosa’s office said that, “while the President considers these representations, further engagement on this matter will be between the President and the National Commissioner”.
By early December, there had been no further communication to the public about this matter. Time will tell whether Sitole manages to cling on to his job or whether 2022 will see another cop at the helm.
The police watchdog’s report
Another matter that has the potential to change the path of SA’s policing is linked to the assassination of Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear in September last year.
What should have been a watershed moment for the SAPS marked the start of even more infighting and chaos.
Ipid looked into why Kinnear had not been assigned a security detail as there had already been clear threats made against his life. Ipid’s wide-ranging findings, signed off in October, found several police officers had been at fault. It recommended that two Hawks members from Gauteng be criminally charged and that national Hawks head Godfrey Lebeya’s conduct be looked at. If the two officers are indeed charged, this could lead to cops being prosecuted for failing to ensure Kinnear’s protection.
Ipid recommended the Western Cape’s Anti-Gang Unit and Crime Intelligence, which are “key to National Security and Transnational or Organised Crime resolving”, should be properly resourced and capacitated, implying that police officers had been taking on organised crime, known to have influence over corrupt cops, without proper resources and training.
If the units are better equipped, as Ipid suggests, it could translate to a true boost against organised crime in 2022, albeit a rather late one.
In terms of the Anti-Gang Unit, the Ipid report found that former acting Western Cape police commissioner Sindile Mfazi should have dealt with its “shortcomings”.
Mfazi died in July 2021.
Despite his death being publicly attributed to Covid-19 complications, police later confirmed the cause of his death was under investigation after suspicions surfaced that he had been poisoned. If he was, as recent news reports suggest, this may open yet another can of worms for the police service. Questions have informally surfaced about whether any of Mfazi’s colleagues wanted him “out the way”.
The Ipid report also found that a rogue unit of police officers, about whom Kinnear complained in a letter to his bosses in December 2018, was operating in the Western Cape. Kinnear said these officers were working to frame him and some of his colleagues, who included former Anti-Gang Unit boss Andre Lincoln, Police Inspectorate head Peter Jacobs and former Western Cape detective head Jeremy Vearey.
At the time, Jacobs, who was then the national head of Crime Intelligence, backed Kinnear, labelling the group of officers a “rogue” unit and recommending they be disbanded. This had not happened.
In its report, Ipid recommended that four officers linked to the rogue unit be departmentally charged. It also said the conduct of Western Cape Crime Intelligence head Mzwandile Tiyo should be looked at, especially because of his seeming lack of action about claims of a rogue unit.
If the officers are departmentally charged and if Tiyo is held to account, it will see Kinnear’s complaint dealt with more than three years after he lodged it. It could also pave the way for police officers allegedly targeted by the unit to take further action.
Controversial cop manoeuvres
This year, Jacobs and Vearey have faced uncertain futures in the police. Sitole rubber-stamped Vearey’s surprise dismissal from the service at the end of May. This related to a series of Facebook posts Vearey had made, and which certain police bosses felt were unbefitting of a senior cop.
Vearey challenged his dismissal via a hearing, which exposed further tensions among officers. In November, arbitrator Imthiaz Sirkhot upheld his firing.
Vearey is taking Sirkhot’s finding on review. This fresh chapter of the saga is set to unfold over the coming months.
Jacobs faced allegations of PPE irregularities involving the Secret Service account. In late 2020, he was suspended and, in March 2021, he was transferred from heading the country’s Crime Intelligence to the Inspectorate.
Jacobs has countered that the claims against him are bogus and that there is evidence suggesting that police officers, including Crime Intelligence colleagues, had abused the Secret Service account. Jacobs, via court processes, could fight to be reinstated as head of Crime Intelligence.
In November, Daily Maverick reported that three Crime Intelligence officers faced arrest relating to public funds allegedly siphoned off in the interests of Zuma.
These developments may run concurrently with older cases, hangovers from Zuma’s presidency. Former Crime Intelligence head Richard Mdluli, appointed two months after Zuma was inaugurated as president in 2009, is expected back in court in January 2022. He faces charges relating to the gross abuse of a police intelligence slush fund.
Recruitment in the time of Covid-19
The SAPS has also had to deal with the impact of Covid-19. Its 2021-2022 Annual Performance Plan said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted negatively on the SAPS’s resources and, in particular, its human and financial resources…
“The SAPS has also been negatively affected by its inability to increase its staff establishment at a rate that is commensurate with population growth in the country and the undisclosed number of foreign nationals who are in the country illegally.”
In November, Deputy Police Minister Cassel Mathale told Parliament it had lost about 8,000 members over a financial year. The service, he said, was pushing ahead with a massive recruitment drive, hoping to take on 10,000 recruits in 2022. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.