New chief must be credible for police to rise from the ashes
“WHAT are you going to do, shoot us?” It was hard to tell, from the deliberately blank expressions on their faces, what effect these words had on the row of riot police.
They were facing a throng of striking parliamentary workers trying to join the main body of their colleagues who had just braved a barrage of stun and smoke grenades and stood firm.
So the question was not entirely rhetorical. Just what would the police do if their instruction to disperse continued to be ignored?
Fortunately, the answer never came. The politicians, in the form of ANC deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude, DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and United Democratic Movement chief whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa, brokered an agreement allowing the workers to stay, as long as there were no more disruptions of parliamentary business.
Meanwhile, in a meeting of the police oversight committee the workers had brought to a premature halt, the abscess of National Commissioner Riah Phiyega’s leadership of the SAPS had begun to be lanced.
Having pored over the transcripts of a meeting of the police top brass at which the generals discussed the implications of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry report into the Marikana massacre, the committee agreed that press statements issued in support of Phiyega, as President Jacob Zuma considered whether or not to subject her to a disciplinary board of inquiry, had been intended to put public pressure on him to leave her alone.
A further statement – following a meeting of the committee at which the generals were instructed to apologise and refrain from such ventures into political territory again – was deemed to have compounded the sin.
The committee, when it was able to reconvene in the afternoon, adopted a report recommending Phiyega face further disciplinary steps and that the generals who had stood by her should also face the music.
Phiyega’s fall from grace was so complete by this stage it seemed unlikely anyone would bother to deliver another kick, but Police Minister Nathi Nhleko added fuel to the fire, unveiling the outcome of an investigation into allegations of labour practice and other abuses by Phiyega, which found she had committed fraud, misconduct and perjury and should face disciplinary measures.
Among the actions she will have to answer for are the tipping off of Western Cape provincial commissioner Arno Lamoer about a criminal investigation into him, lying in court about the institution of charges against crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli and forcing a sidelined general to sign a backdated performance agreement that scored him as having performed well when, in fact, he had been made to stay home for a year.
KwaZulu-Natal provincial commissioner Mmamonnye Ngobeni will have to answer for suspending the province’s Hawks boss, Johan Booysen, on charges of fraud after the investigation vindicated his claims these had been unfair and recommended that he be reinstated.
This closes yet another blighted chapter in the recent history of the SAPS and ends the term of the third national commissioner in a row to have failed spectacularly.
But it leaves the image of the police at an all-time low, with the taint of fraud, corruption and underworld connections clinging to the highest echelons.
At the same time, the foot soldiers – by events of the past few weeks – have been thrust into the role of enforcers of the peace, where politics has failed, fighting running battles with students and workers on university campuses and in Parliament.
The roots of discontent are complex and varied and don’t necessarily amount to a permanent rupture, but reliance on force to keep a lid on it will only fan the flames.
Trust in the police – insofar as there is any left – will be the first casualty unless politicians start managing tensions better.
“Give us a chance,” Dlakude pleaded with the parliamentary workers on Wednesday, “before things get out of hand.”
There is probably still time, but not to the extent that seems to lie behind cynical moves like the procurement of presidential jets in a time of desperate need.
Zuma, meanwhile, will have to appoint a credible successor to ensure the inevitable removal of Phiyega and her lieutenants doesn’t prove to be a false dawn.
● Michael Weeder is away
CHARGES: Riah Phiyega