JOHAN BURGER: Implications of a civilian commissioner

On Tuesday, 12 June 2012, President Jacob Zuma announced his decision to 'release' General Bheki Cele of his duties as National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS). At the same time he announced the appointment of another civilian, Mangwashi 'Riah' Phiyega, to replace Cele. Almost unnoticed, against the backdrop of these two important announcements, the President also thanked Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi for acting as National Commissioner of the SAPS during the last few months and effectively relieving him of this duty. His future deployment in the SAPS is still to be announced.

Phiyega's appointment certainly came as a surprise. That there was not a single one amongst more than twenty senior lieutenant generals from which a national commissioner could be appointed is more than an indictment against the SAPS, it is a vote of no confidence. It is grossly unfair to paint all senior officers with a brush of incompetence and corruption because of the alleged activities of a few. It ignores the fact that the majority of them are honest and decent members of the SAPS who demonstrated their solidarity in the face of attempts to stop criminal investigations against those accused of criminal conduct. This blatant snubbing of the police's leadership cannot be conducive to public trust and neither will it encourage confidence by police members generally in their own management.

It would have meant so much more for the SAPS if, during precisely these troubled times, one of their own was appointed in an open and transparent process. It would have gone a long way towards restoring some pride within the police, as well as public confidence. Unfortunately, this did not happen and it must be assumed that the appointment of yet another civilian to lead the organisation may have quite the opposite effect.

The sensibility of appointing a social worker with good administrative skills to lead the SAPS in the face of arguably better-qualified police officers during these difficult times can be questioned. If there is a need to add management skills to the SAPS, a lesson can be learned from the appointment in 1997 of Meyer Kahn, Group Chairman of South African Breweries as Chief Executive in the SAPS for a period of two years. Given his vast business management experience Kahn was requested to assist the national commissioner at the time, George Fivaz, in this regard, not to replace him.

However, the fact is that on Tuesday Phiyega was promoted from a civilian to a full general and to the position of National Commissioner of the SAPS. From all accounts she is a highly competent person in her own right and her integrity is attested to by all who know her. Let there be no illusions, she faces a daunting task with the many problems that continue to plague the SAPS, including the challenges relating to the Richard Mdluli-saga, and the enormous responsibility to get the SAPS back on track to fighting crime. She will need all the support she can get and we should give it to her.

Concerning Cele, it is obvious that the President had very little choice but to act against him. He was faced by the findings and recommendations in two reports, the report by the Public Protector during July 2011 and the more recent report (May 2012) by a Board of Inquiry chaired by Judge Jake Moloi. The Public Protector found that Cele's actions in relation to the acquiring of office space for the SAPS was 'improper, unlawful, and amounted to maladministration'. The Moloi Inquiry, appointed as a result of the Public Protector's findings, found that Cele was unfit for office and recommended that he be removed.

After the disastrous experience with the two previous national commissioners, one would have thought that Zuma would have given a little more thought to the possibility of appointing a new national commissioner from the ranks of the police. So why then did he choose, for the third time in a row, to again appoint a civilian in this position? In his announcement he referred to the need for 'corrective measures'. It is unclear whether this was a reference to the damage done by Cele or to the wider scale problems that exist within the Service, including the serious allegations of fraud and corruption relating to the Secret Services Account. The only indication of what he meant with 'corrective measures' is that it includes 'management and financial systems' and 'breaches of information security'. In the latter case he referred to events of the past few weeks that saw the 'disappointing spectacle of police officers jeopardizing state security by placing information in the public domain'.

The last remark also leaves us wondering precisely what it is Zuma is referring to. The only 'reports' that were leaked was the so-called 'Ground Cover Intelligence Report' by the suspended head of the SAPS' Crime Intelligence Division, Mdluli, in November 2011 to Zuma, alleging a conspiracy against the President. The second 'report' was a letter to Zuma earlier this year, also produced by Mdluli, this time claiming that there was a conspiracy by a number of his senior colleagues who 'wanted him out because he was seen as a Zuma-man'. The third is a secret report by Major General Mark Hankel from Crime Intelligence, during November 2011, to the Inspector General of Intelligence. The report is titled 'Report to the Inspector General of Intelligence on the matter of alleged mal-administration and crimes committed in respect of the Secret Services Account (SSA) of the Crime Intelligence Division of the South African Police Service'. This is a damning report and contains much of the evidence for the allegations of fraud and corruption against Mdluli and others in Crime Intelligence.

It should be clear then that the only information that was leaked were the two notes by Mdluli, the same person who was being investigated for murder, fraud and corruption, and the secret report by Hankel pointing out the details of how the secret services account was plundered by Mdluli and others. The 'disappointing spectacle' that Zuma refers to had everything to do with this scandal and the attempts by a young and relatively inexperienced acting national commissioner, Lieutenant General Mkhwanazi, supported by like-minded honest and dedicated senior officers, to ensure that these criminal investigations were carried out to their logical conclusion. But they were frustrated in these attempts by political interference that saw them being forced to halt these investigations and to lift the suspension of Mdluli. If anything was a 'spectacle', it was this kind of interference.

Mkhwanazi's defiance of clear political interference (which he referred to as 'powers beyond us') and his uncompromising stand against those in the SAPS who are corrupt, certainly did not earn him any accolades. This may also explain why the initial enthusiasm that accompanied his surprise appointment as acting national commissioner was replaced by a cool goodbye just a few months later. But there is more to it. Not only was Mkhwanazi overlooked for the top appointment, so also were all his more senior colleagues, including four deputy national commissioners, nine provincial commissioners and the remaining ten divisional commissioners. Most of these are highly experienced police officers with more than adequate senior management experience and, perhaps even more importantly, a good understanding of the unique sub-culture that is shared amongst police organisations all over the world.

Dr Johan Burger is a Senior Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.