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22 March 2018 23:19 (South Africa)
Opinionista Alex Eliseev

The Phiyega Problem

  • Alex Eliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them. 

When Riah Phiyega joined the police, she described herself as a teabag being lowered into boiling water. For a woman with a million metaphors, this was a fairly simple one: she asked South Africa to give her a year before judging whether she’s capable of infusing her flavour into a deeply troubled organisation. Technically, Phiyega’s first year ends in June, but with yet another scandal unfolding, I couldn’t resist taking a sneaky sip of tea and offering her some advice.

The water has been boiling furiously ever since Riah Phiyega slipped into her uniform and became a General. Two months into her new job, police officers gunned down 34 striking miners in what became known as the Marikana massacre - an event that knocked South Africa off its orbit. Last week she was forced to explain why a policeman facing seven counts of attempted murder had been assigned to the sensational Oscar Pistorius case, the most high-profile investigation the country has seen since the birth of democracy. And this week, her deep sigh echoed across Pretoria when it emerged that a bunch of officers decided it was a good idea to tie / handcuff a suspect to the back of a van and drag him all the way to a police station, where he later died in murky circumstances.

It’s true, Phiyega was denied her honeymoon and flung straight into battle. And while she’s been called on to do damage control during scandal after scandal - what exactly was that Sandton cop doing in that R8 supercar when it disintegrated in a crash in northern Johannesburg? - she can't be held responsible for them. Some even argue she acted swiftly (within hours in the Pistorius matter) and decisively in the face of unprecedented controversy.

But that’s not where the problem lies. The trouble is that in between these debacles, Phiyega has done little to earn the respect of the public and to balance out the scales of opinion. She’s failed to show that she’s been embraced, or even accepted by those she leads and, as a result, continues to come across as soft and aloof.

On Thursday, after news broke of the Mozambican man, Mido Macia, being dragged through a township by those we pay to protect us, Phiyega let her spokespeople handle the interviews. Sure, she issued a statement, but one editor described it as "insipid and uninspiring". This was a story that played on all the major networks (Sky, BBC, CNN) and drew comments from president Jacob Zuma, Amnesty International and other diplomats. It was a big deal.

But let’s not dwell on one case. Let's go back to the beginning...

Phiyega became the third consecutive civilian brought in to lead the post-Apartheid police service in June last year. If she was a teabag, then the two teabags before her are now drying out in the dustpans of disgrace. One, Jackie Selebi, is in jail for corruption while the other, Bheki Cele, was fired for massive tender irregularities. Phiyega's appointment was a "here we go again" moment, which saw another politically-connected outsider parachuted in over the heads of those who had devoted their lives to the service. There were plenty of warnings and an equal amount of spin from the police. She was hailed for being the first black woman to become a national police commissioner and her appointment came with corporate jargon like this: “Based on her expertise, Ms. Phiyega brings wealth of experience on strategic leadership and sound management background, both from public service and private sector. We believe such vast experience will stand her in good stead as she steers the Saps towards better compliance, system integration, effective and greater accountability.” This was usually followed by a presentation of her long CV.

But in reality, from the word go, Phiyega began to attract the wrong kind of attention. She instantly became known as the woman who spins metaphors. Remember: “You don’t have to be a drunk to run a bottle store”. Last week, while dealing with the Hilton Botha problem, she spoke about house foundations and obfuscated the difference between criminal charges and internal disciplinary procedures.

When the Marikana hearings began, she was in the press again for allegedly laughing at the footage being shown as evidence. These were media reports, and not necessarily gospel, but her image took a serious knock. During the same hearings, it emerged she had praised the officers involved shortly after the shooting.

It’s important to understand that this is not a critique of her behind-the-scenes administrative ability. Not enough is known about her management style and whether the changes she is implementing will pay off in the long run. The results of experiments in the police become clear later down the line (think about the decisions to bring back military ranks or disband specialised units).

This is a look at the image she portrays. And for someone leading the police, this can be as important as the actual work being done.

Bheki Cele is a poor example of what a police chief should be. He was a rattle gun of catchy phrases that made great headlines but he was, at best, ignorant about his duties as South Africa’s top cop. History has recorded him as a loud mouth who called on officers to puff out their chests and suck in their stomachs. He also invented a war against police killings without any statistics to show that they were actually on the rise. But what Cele got right was that, despite being a political appointment, he played policeman so well he almost became a policeman. The feeling amongst officers (down at station level) was that he was doing battle on their behalf and that he “had their back”. He was a cheerleader who flew to crime scenes in a helicopter.

Gauteng provincial commissioner, Mzwandile Petros, inherited the country’s most crime-ridden jurisdiction but has secured himself an image of a tough cop cracking down on corruption. He’s a media wizard and knows how to communicate his plan and gives regular updates on victories. He attends breakfasts and speaks on radio. He draws flack from some officers for being autocratic and for operating behind closed doors, but out in the public domain he is seen as someone who is turning Gauteng around. And it makes people living in the province sleep just a little easier.

If you want to look outside the police, consider Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi. While doing his work, Motsoaledi is also grabbing front pages by delivering babies and taking the time to explain his actions to the country. He’s the kind of Minister you can call on the cellphone and get an instant interview with. He’s passionate about his message.

Once again, no one is arguing that to be good at her job Phiyega must also become a media darling. But she needs to communicate what she’s doing better and inspire confidence from South Africans. Her duty is to lead the police and to make the nation feel safe. People need to know that the ship is in safe hands and that those who rush to help us during a house robbery are being managed properly. Like justice, police work (and especially police management) must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.

The police remain scarred by the Selebi and Cele eras and, as the Institute for Securities Studies will tell you, upper management remains a major problem. A good starting point would be a police chief that wins the hearts and minds of officers at grassroots level as well as of the country’s citizens. Looking from the outside in, there is little evidence that this has happened.

There is word that Phiyega is due to hold a press conference about the death of Macia. She’ll do her best to talk tough and show “deep concern”. She may even suspend the officers (unlike her decision not to suspend Botha while he fights off the charges against him).

But over the next three months, Phiyega should think long and hard about the image she portrays. She should look in the mirror and ask herself how South Africa sees her. The good thing about inheriting an organisation in turmoil is an opportunity to turn it around. To use her metaphor: the good thing about bitter-tasting tea is that just a hint of pleasant flavour is easy to taste. But is she doing that? Or has she become known as a person who laughs at the grief of others and apologises for the actions of her rank and file? Why is she invisible when there is no fire to put out? What exactly has she implemented over the past nine months (where there have been successes, show us)? What is being done to change an impression (both local and global) that South Africa’s police service has slipped back to being a police force, full of brutality and death?

These are some things to think about. Let’s talk again in three months time. And let's leave the metaphors to the poets. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter.

  • Alex Eliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them. 

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