Nhlanhla "Lucky" Mkhwanazi's days as SA's acting top cop are numbered, as President Zuma looks set to formally replace General Bheki Cele this week.
Zuma met the suspended Cele on Friday to discuss his future after an inquiry recommended he be fired.
With Cele out, so too will go Mkhwanazi, who has been fulfilling the former’s duties as national police commissioner in an acting capacity, and in the process South Africa will lose a lauded career policeman from a position that has been filled by succession of political appointees whose tenures have ended in controversy.
Cele replaced convicted fraudster Jackie Selebi in the post in 2009 and is now himself the subject of a judicial inquiry into fraudulent and corrupt activities that he allegedly committed while in charge.
But instead of bucking the trend by installing a professional police officer, Zuma is said to be ready to make labour department director general Nkosinathi Nhleko the country’s next top cop – leaving Mkhwanazi out in the cold.
Rise to prominence
Although criticised for being too young and lacking managerial experience when temporarily appointed, the 38-year-old Mkhwanazi quickly earned himself a reputation as a stony cop determined to fight crime and, more importantly, clean up the police force.
“Ah well, a job has to be done, I was as surprised as everybody else,” Lucky, as Mkhwanazi is known in SAPS circles, told the Mail & Guardian.
After joining the police in 1993, Mkhwanazi quickly rose to prominence on the back of his performance in the special task force – which he took over in 2005.
“Lucky was always prepared to work,” Michael Fryer, a former general in the SAPS and Mkhwanazi’s commander for over a decade, told the M&G. “He never complained and is an honest cop through and through – you can trust him with your life.”
Despite his honesty and trustworthiness, Mkhwanazi has made enemies during his eight-month tenure through his apparent unwillingness to be controlled by his political masters.
This is no more apparent than in the Richard Mdluli saga when Mkhwanazi boldly suspended him at the end of May following a political game of to-and-fro.
Last year, Mdluli faced fraud and corruption charges relating to the alleged misuse of a crime intelligence fund, the purchase of luxury vehicles and the hiring of family members.
Both sets of charges were withdrawn and Mdluli was reinstated as head of crime intelligence in March this year – with allegations rife that this was done at the behest of political pressure from Zuma and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
After intense public pressure, Mthethwa was forced to move Mdluli to another division within SAPS at the beginning of May, following reports that he was being protected by Zuma and had been granted extra powers to spy on emails, phone calls and text messages since being reinstated.
This was not enough for Mkhwanazi, who went on to suspend Mdluli.
Digging in his heels, Mdluli challenged the suspension and after several opposing judgements in the Johannesburg Labour Court – which saw him reinstated, then re-suspended – Mdluli was interdicted by the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria from executing his duties as a policeman.
Mdluli’s challenge against his suspension is set to be heard on June 21.
The fracas culminated in Mkhwanazi last week being accused of looting the same intelligence slush fund in which Mdluli was implicated – something he vehemently denied.
“I would welcome the public protector, Parliament, the United Nations or anyone to investigate me,” Mkhwanazi told reporters in Pretoria on Thursday.
Days are numbered
Innocent or not, Mkhwanazi’s days seem numbered.
“It’s a pity that his honest actions will directly lead to his downfall. He is the first appointment to the top job in the police service that was not a political one and I fear it may be our last due to him acting without fear or favour,” the Democratic Alliance’s Dianne Kohler Barnard told the M&G.
Dr Johan Burger, researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ Crime and Justice Programme echoed this sentiment and said Mkhwanazi is “exactly what South Africa needs”.
“He’s a good, honest cop – which has been appreciated by the public because he stood up and represented what is good about the SAPS. It’s sad that his honesty has dealt his chances of being employed on a permanent basis a serious blow,” said Burger.
Despite the problems encountered in appointing politicians to head SAPS, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj last week defended the tendency.
“Political appointments to the public institutions like the national police service are due to the executive needing to appoint people they can trust. There is in many cases not yet a core of professionals from which the president can draw on,” Maharaj said.
But this excuse rings hollow, said Burger.
“We have proof of what happens when you have political appointments – they are an utter failure. The worst thing about them is that they lead to further bad appointments by the politically elected subject across the board. You can’t have a critical post like this being filled by anyone other than a career policeman – it’s as simple as that,” he said.