Governance watch

Phiyega effectively the scapegoat for deeper problems

Commissioner Phiyega scapegoated?

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega is right to feel aggrieved at effectively being made the scapegoat for deeper problems and for mistakes made by her predecessor.

It might not have been the intention, but the Farlam Commission into the August 2012 Marikana shooting of mineworkers has allowed Phiyega to become the sole scapegoat for the incident.

 At the same time it allowed the man who probably should carry most of the blame for a trigger-happy police force, to remain sitting pretty in the cabinet as a deputy minister.

Phiyega, who was called on to motivate to President Jacob Zuma why she should not be declared unfit for her position, should rightfully carry the can for the finding by the commission that she attempted to mislead the commission. That alone might be, and probably is, enough grounds to declare her unfit for the position.

As far as the actual shooting on that fateful day is concerned, she, however, has an absolutely valid point when she, in her responding letter to President Zuma, blames the incident on the militarisation of the SA Police Service (SAPS) by her predecessor and now deputy minister, Bheki Cele.

Let’s not forget

The Marikana massacre, which on the day cost 34 mineworkers their lives, came only two months after Phiyega took over as commissioner from Cele. He was dismissed by President Zuma on the recommendation of a board of inquiry, mandated to establish whether he “had acted corruptly, dishonestly or with an undisclosed conflict of interest” in relation to two police lease deals.

What seems to have been forgotten in the wake of the Farlam report and the furore around the demands for Phiyega’s head, is Cele’s controversial history as commissioner. This includes:

  • Only a month after his appointment in July 2009, Cele declared that the police, when confronted by criminals must “shoot to kill”, without worrying about “what happens after that”, in line with his philosophy on shooting before being shot, preached in KwaZulu-Natal during his time as MEC for community safety;
  • It was on his watch that evidence was uncovered of an alleged ‘hit squad’ in KwaZulu-Natal under the command of the provincial Hawks commander, Major-General Johan Booysen;
  • Cele’s promotion of Booysen was in itself controversial, due to his previous unit against organised crime having a reputation for a disproportionately high ‘kill rate’ of crime suspects; and
  • Cele was also blamed for fuelling murders on taxi bosses with an inflammatory remark at the funeral of a fallen police taxi task team member, saying: “If SAPS members cannot arrest suspects and they feel that their lives are threatened they must take them to the nearest mortuary.”

In a joint statement in July 2011, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF) warned: “The current approach to use of force by the South African Police Service (SAPS) is most likely to result in innocent civilian casualties, reduce police safety and continue to undermine the credibility of the police.”

The statement referred to “several recent statements (in which) Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa and the National Commissioner, General Bheki Cele, have called for tougher and more forceful policing,” saying it is “ill advised and will be counterproductive for both the police and the public in South Africa. Instead police need to be supported in attaining professional standards in the use of force.”

Deeper problem

If Commissioner Phiyega is to be relieved of her duties, she will become the third commissioner in a row to leave under a cloud and the only one for reasons directly related to how she performed her actual police duties.

The late Jackie Selebi became the first to leave in disgrace after being accused, found guilty and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for corruption. He served seven months before being released on medical parole.

Cele lasted for three years before the recommendation for his dismissal came from the board of inquiry. Again, the charges had nothing to do with his duties as policeman per se.

Despite leaving the position as police commissioner under a cloud, he is now serving far from the heat of Marikana and the Farlam report in the Zuma administration as Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

All three, however, have one thing in common: Not one of them was a career police officer or had any policing experience or training.

Cele came closest to having any form of police background, having been the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for community safety. But his only academic qualification is a diploma in Information Technology from the Mangosuthu Technikon.

Selebi spent most of the 1980s in exile until his return in 1991. From 1995 to 1998 he served as the South African ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations. In 1998, he was appointed Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a post he held until 1999 before his appointment as commissioner in 2000.

No records of his academic qualifications or education could be found.

Of the three, Phiyega has the most impressive CV.

She holds a BA (Social Work) degree from the University of the North, a BAHons (Social Science) from Unisa, an MA (Social Science) from the University of Johannesburg and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from Wales University, Cardiff. She also attended executive development programmes at the National University of Singapore and Wharton University in the US.

Among the positions she has held:

  • Group executive at Absa Bank Limited, a board member of Absa Actuaries and trustee of the Absa Foundation;
  • Group executive at Transnet, served on numerous Transnet subsidiaries and formed part of a team of senior executives responsible for the restructuring of the old Portnet into the Port Operations and Port Authority, and subsequent became part of the executive of the National Ports Authority of South Africa;
  • Director for development at the National Council for Child Welfare; and
  • Spent a few years, maybe ironically in light of what happened  at Marikana, at the Chamber of Mines as an employee well-being consultant.

Prior to joining the South African Police Service, she was chairperson of the Presidential State-Owned Enterprise Review Committee, tasked to review state-owned entities and to make recommendations for their future repositioning.

It is an impressive track record, but there is nothing in there to suggest that it would have equipped her to lead a national police service with its own unique culture and challenges.


by Piet Coetzer

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