McBride for IPID? WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa believes he's found an "ideal candidate" to lead the organisation that polices the police. Robert McBride looks set to become one of the most remarkable and controversial comeback stories in the history of South Africa's comeback stories. Perhaps Mthethwa is living in a universe different from ours. News of Robert McBride being nominated to lead one of the most important oversight organisations in South Africa - the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) - forced me to do something I'd never done before: shout on Twitter. I even used capital letters.
"Nathi Mthethwa: WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?" I demanded of the Police Minister, who, by the way, scores an impressive 8/10 on Stephen Grootes' political power rating system and is probably not used to being shouted at. A few equally emotional tweets followed.
The hangover of my rage has now kicked in but I have no regrets. The anger I felt - and continue to feel - is justified.
The idea of McBride being hired to lead the police watchdog is beyond scandalous.
It's downright outrageous.
It is a real WTF moment if there has ever been one. It felt, and it still feels, as though someone out there is testing the boundaries of the ridiculous, where they test how much this country can take before it snaps.
McBride's critics have always been quick on the trigger, firing "murderer" and "reckless drunk" at the former Ekurhuleni Metro Police chief. But it's important to remember that McBride received amnesty for the 1986 bombing of the Magoo's Pub/ Why Not Restaurant, where three people were killed. He also fought a long and hard legal battle to have his drunk driving conviction overturned. This related to him crashing his state vehicle after a Christmas party in December 2006.
So technically, as Mthethwa points out, he's as eligible as anyone else for the job. He may even have an edge, given all the academic qualifications the minister names while defending his choice. But is McBride the "ideal candidate" that Mthethwa makes him out to be?
Spoiler alert: No. He isn't.
I spent years reporting on McBride's drunk driving case. Listening to the testimony of his officers was terrifying. They described a metro police department rotten to the core. One of them called McBride "Idi Amin", the tyrant who ruled Uganda in the 1970s. That was probably over-the-top, but three of his former subordinates, under oath, spilled the beans on rigged promotions, false statements, driving state cars across borders for personal errands, kidnapping suspects, relocating crime scenes, assaulting witnesses and covering up crimes. There was a great deal of doubt cast on their credibility. McBride claimed they were ganging up on him because he was investigating them. But even if just a fraction of what they revealed is true, it should make our blood run cold and force us to think about what kind of a police department McBride was running.
I also covered the 2008 xenophobic mayhem when McBride arrived at a tense standoff in Reiger Park, on the East Rand. He and his men strolled in like cowboys and in moments detonated a fragile situation that had been threatening to blow up for hours. Even a photographer was shot up with buckshot.
If you rewind further, you'll see reports of McBride being arrested in Mozambique for gun-running in 1998. Once again, he was cleared of the charges. The following year, he cropped up again, somehow implicated in an abandoned assault case at an escort agency which he allegedly visited with Cyril Beeka, the underworld boss who landed up dead.
I'm not entering an argument of how strong these cases were or whether McBride was a victim of some terrible misfortune or misunderstanding, or even a conspiracy. The bottom line is that his credibility has been dragged under a train and is lying in tatters. And to lead an organisation such as IPID, in wake of Marikana, Mido Macia, Cato Manor, Andries Tatane and countless other allegations of police brutality and misconduct, credibility matters. Public perception matters. Big time.
Look at the police today. It's suffering a credibility gap the size of Jupiter (to borrow from another angry tweet of mine). The list of misdeeds is simply too long. Most recently, IPID was called in to investigate police chief Riah Phiyega, who stands accused of tipping off a provincial commissioner about a crime intelligence investigation against him. Whether she did or didn't is irrelevant to this column. What matters is that IPID has the overwhelming responsibility of investigating the allegations and presenting its findings to the public. Allegations of defeating the ends of justice leveled against the national commissioner of the police. If IPID clears Phiyega, as it may well do, the public needs to believe in the verdict. McBride would be in charge of these kinds of investigations.
His nomination raises further questions about the state of our law enforcement and its leaders. Are there no better candidates? A man like former prisons boss Tom Moyane. Or former JMPD boss David Tembe. Or ex Gauteng top cop Mzwandile Petros (Isn't he looking for a change?). Somebody. Anybody! Just as long as they can stand at a media briefing and command respect and our trust. Somebody whose feathers are not drenched in oil, no matter whether they fell into it or were pushed by their enemies.
Mthethwa's choice is clearly political. McBride is a tree and his roots are long, burrowing deep into the ANC. Having influence can be a good thing when it comes to leading IPID. You need someone with guts and experience. But what IPID and the police need most of all right now is a strong dose of credibility. Not controversy.
The problem with McBride is that the public don't really know whether he's a victim or a villain, a friend or foe. An unlucky hero or a scoundrel. And the last thing the police need is more uncertainty. More doubt. More questions and allegations. More baggage and scandal.
Parliament now has 30 days to confirm Mthethwa's nomination. Opposition parties are not going to roll over quietly, no matter the final outcome.
Government is once again using the Cargate "Wabenzi Frenzy" defence. This entails flipping open the ministerial handbook and showing it to the public, saying "Look here, it allows us to ride around in these fancy cars". Or in this case, "McBride has been cleared and has no pending cases, which makes him a successful candidate". But just because it's technically allowed, doesn't make it right.
After everything that politicians have forced South Africans to swallow over the years, this seems like a particularly bitter pill. We've all been forced to witness what bad appointments in the security cluster lead to and how much damage is done. Instead of bringing in fresh, independent talent, the same old cadres keep getting circulated through the system, like dirty water in a jacuzzi.
It also doesn't help that while this news breaks, the state is taking public protector Thuli Madonsela to court to interdict her Nkandla report into R200 million spent on President Jacob Zuma's private home.
More and more, government is driving home a message that it doesn't care what its citizens want. It doesn't care what they think. It doesn't care how much of a dent it's reputation takes. Which is strange given that next year the country goes to the polls.
I've never joined the mob that hurls insults at McBride and beats him with the history stick. If he's been acquitted of all charges, he should be allowed to continue his life. I wish him well. But to appoint him to lead such a crucial organisation as IPID is a grave mistake, one that the whole country will be made to pay for.
Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him: @alexeliseev
This column appeared in Daily Maverick.