The po­lice com­mis­sioner with the tin heart

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

MON­DAY was Riah Phiyega’s last day as the Na­tional Po­lice Com­mis­sioner. Well, sort of.

There was no good­bye of­fice party, with cof­fee and cook­ies. There were no nos­tal­gic farewell speeches with loyal sub­or­di­nates sur­rep­ti­tiously knuck­ling away a tear.

Be­cause Phiyega has been sus­pended from her job for the past 20 months, she hasn’t had the schlepp of bat­tling through the Pre­to­ria traf­fic to turn up at her Wachthuis of­fice and ac­tu­ally work. An­other pos­i­tive for her has been that this un­in­tended va­ca­tion has, nat­u­rally, been on full pay.

De­spite the sus­pen­sion, Phiyega does have some brag­ging rights. She is, for ex­am­ple, the only com­mis­sioner since Ge­orge Fi­vaz, a ca­reer po­lice­man ap­pointed in 1994 by Pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela, to com­plete the statu­tory five-year term.

Jackie Selebi, a po­lit­i­cal ap­point­ment by Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki, had his of­fice un­ex­pect­edly trun­cated by a 15-year jail sen­tence for cor­rup­tion. Bheki Cele, a po­lit­i­cal ap­point­ment by Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma, sur­vived barely two years be­fore be­ing fired af­ter a board of in­quiry into claims of cor­rup­tion found him un­fit for ser­vice.

Phiyega, too, was found by a board of in­quiry to be un­fit for of­fice, fol­low­ing the death from po­lice fire of 34 min­ers at Marikana. Ear­lier, the Far­lam com­mis­sion of in­quiry into the Marikana in­ci­dent found that her ev­i­dence to the com­mis­sion had been mis­lead­ing.

One would know none of this from the SA Po­lice Ser­vice (SAPS) web­site’s his­tory of the ser­vice, which is a mar­vel­lous ex­am­ple of how to air­brush in­con­ve­nient truths. Maybe air­brush­ing is too sub­tle a de­scrip­tion. The SAPS of­fi­cial ac­count of its past is in­dus­trial-scale pro­pa­gan­dis­tic spray­paint­ing.

To start with, this his­tory com­mences in 1994. Pre­sum­ably this is to avoid re­count­ing the sul­ly­ing in­ci­dents dat­ing back to the force’s ac­tual for­ma­tion in 1913, lest we start draw­ing em­bar­rass­ing analo­gies with the present day.

More specif­i­cally, Selebi’s ap­point­ment – a dis­as­ter not only for the SAPS but for In­ter­pol, the in­ter­na­tional po­lice agency of which he was head un­til charged – is noted with the un­in­ten­tion­ally com­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion that he marked the be­gin­ning of a “new era” for the SAPS. As it turned out, a new era, in­deed, but not as was in­tended.

Selebi’s sub­se­quent abrupt de­par­ture is not even men­tioned, never mind the rea­son for it. Sim­i­larly, with Cele.

Phiyega’s per­sonal Water­loo, the Bat­tle of Marikana, is never men­tioned. Nor, ob­vi­ously, the Far­lam Com­mis­sion, or the board of in­quiry, or her sus­pen­sion.

Phiyega’s name oc­curs only twice. Once, to record her ap­point­ment as com­mis­sioner, with the po­lice min­is­ter as­sur­ing her of “all nec­es­sary sup­port to en­sure that we col­lec­tively con­tinue to deal a blow to crime”. The sec­ond men­tion is a 2013 speech com­mem­o­rat­ing the po­lice ser­vice’s cen­te­nary.

Her speech – which the SAPS his­tory breathily de­scribes as “in­spi­ra­tional” – is ac­tu­ally a per­func­tory in­tro­duc­tion to the main speaker, the min­is­ter of po­lice. De­spite its brevity, it does have its own mo­ments of un­in­tended hi­lar­ity.

“Noth­ing will de­ter us,” boasts Phiyega with­out a blush, just a year af­ter Marikana, “from en­sur­ing that our women and men in blue con­duct them­selves at all times in a man­ner which is be­yond re­proach. At the same time we must tackle crime and crim­i­nals with vigour yet within the con­fines of the very laws which we are Con­sti­tu­tion­ally bound to up­hold.”

These are re­mark­able words from a woman who has never shown the faintest pub­lic sign of con­tri­tion for Marikana. For she and Marikana have be­come syn­ony­mous. If one Googles “Phiyega”, the search en­gine’s auto-com­plete in­stan­ta­neously cou­ples her name to the mas­sacre.

It must surely, at some level, hurt that it is for this tragedy that she will go down in his­tory?

To be ig­no­min­iously shuf­fled from the stage, al­ways to be re­mem­bered as the one who presided over the un­think­able, the first po­lice mas­sacre un­der an African Na­tional Congress gov­ern­ment – a mas­sacre eerily echo­ing the 1960 Sharpeville killings by the guardians of the apartheid state – must be an emo­tional bur­den, no mat­ter how brazen a face she puts on it.

On the other hand, per­haps this in­sou­ciance is no act nor bur­den. Phiyega was an ANC de­ployee, not a through-the-ranks pub­lic ser­vant. Politi­cians are not renowned for be­ing finely at­tuned to feel­ings of shame and re­morse.

As she put it when in­tro­duc­ing the min­is­ter, pre­sum­ably with a straight face, “We can never change his­tory. In fact we must care­fully pre­serve his­tory so that we can cel­e­brate the fact that in­jus­tices of the past have been rec­ti­fied.”

Trust us, Phiyega, we will. South Africa will re­mem­ber.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.