Riah Phiyega is right - gender matters
- M&G Hangout: Phiyega takes the stand
- Marikana: Evasive Phiyega deflects blame from Mthethwa
- Phiyega faces Marikana grilling after weak showing
With her back against the wall, national police commissioner Riah Phiyega suggested last week that the debate about her competence is in fact a "veiled gender debate".
It would be easy to dismiss the police commissioner's claim as a desperate grab at dignity at a low point in her tenure, but she is right. It may be inappropriate for her to raise this issue at the moment it smacks of obfuscation and comes across as self-serving - but Phiyega's performance cannot be divorced from the fact that she heads an institution that for most of its history has excluded women, and to this day has a workforce that is 75% male.
Since 1994 there has been an on-going, and important public conversation about women's competence and their ability to hold key positions in South Africa. The foregrounding of these discussions has of course had the effect of reinforcing the idea that men - by virtue of their maleness are competent to lead large, complex organisations.
Despite the problem presented by this framing of leadership questions, because Phiyega has named it, and because there is enough substance to women's claims in general about sexist treatment by the media and public institutions, it is worth pursuing at some level of detail.
There is no question that by raising the issue when she is at her weakest, Phiyega has done no favours to women holding senior leadership positions. Yet her comments raise important questions about how women are treated, both within the police and more broadly.
She also forces us to think about the challenges facing women who sit at the top of deeply sexist institutions: do women decline invitations to lead these groups because their very fabric is patriarchal, or do they deliberately take them on, seeking to reshape them into non-sexist entities?
Phiyega is clearly not the best leader to look to for answers in this regard. Her failings since taking up the post have been pretty basic. She never decided whether she was going to play the an insider role, seeking to gain the trust of the rank and file in order to inspire them to do better, or whether she would leverage her outsider status and use that to push for faster, more aggressive change.
The insider approach is necessarily an incrementalist one; building trust takes time, and requires many compromises along the way. Working to change a large institution from the inside requires a deep understanding of its culture, and strong competence in building consensus so as not to seem threatening to those who are powerful within the structure.
The second approach is more risky. It is a route best pursued by outsiders because it seeks to break decisively from the past, but it also requires careful planning. While the new boss can play the outsider, she needs close support from insiders so that she does face an outright rebellion.
Within her first month in the seat, the police chief would have been faced with this crucial decision. An experienced manager would also have known that trying to straddle, by doing both would have been unlikely to work, especially in an organisation where hierarchy, authority and clarity of purpose are so highly valued. She would have wanted to avoid giving mixed messages to a force desperate for direction.
Phiyega's track record thus far shows that she has not made a real choice. Her conduct in the hours, days and weeks following the massacre in Marikana demonstrated that she was aligning herself with her officers, playing the insider. Yet in the early months of this year, in her handling of the Oscar Pistorius and Emidio Macia matters, Phiyega demonstrated a willingness to act swiftly and decisively against officers who seemed to have gone rogue.
Some may argue that her decisiveness in these matters has been linked to her ineptitude on Marikana. My sense is that it is more complex than this; that Phiyega has been genuinely torn about her role and positioning in the organisation and the overtly gendered nature of relationships within the police force have been central to her confusion about how to proceed. This doesn't excuse her actions, but it does provide useful context.
While much has been said of her bungling, it is important to remember where the police have been in the last 30 years. Phiyega inherited a force that was deeply racist and sexist before 1994. Police officers in the 1980s used rape and the threat of rape, to intimidate male and female activists, and they operated with impunity, using hyper-masculinity to buttress their authority.
Today, Phiyega's police force is stretched thin by high crime rates. Police officers live with the threat of violence on a daily basis and many of them turn their rage towards their families and their partners.
A 2009 report by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) found increasing numbers of family murders (including femicide) within the ranks of the South African Police Service (SAPS). In an excellent analysis of masculinity among police officers, Lario Potgieter writes about the gendered roles that police officers still play in today's police stations.
Interviews with police officers indicate that a clear gender division of labour exists within the police, with women doing the computer and administrative work, and men patrolling and doing the fieldwork, i.e. fighting crime.
This divide has real consequences for promotion and pay and obviously, it reinforces ideas about what women and men can and cannot do. While one might argue (wrongly) that this type of sexism is relatively benign, Phiyega will know that many women within the police force are subjected to overt sexism, including routine harassment and sexual assault.
Many male police officers have refused to accept that women have a right to work alongside tem as equals. A male officer interviewed by Potgeiter advised his female colleagues as follows, "Don't tell yourself you're a woman. The minute you tell yourself you're a woman, you're a failure; tell yourself I am a man. Like this, if we have to fight, we must fight together as one. Don't tell yourself you're a woman. The guys don't want to work with women (my emphasis)."
In her media statements this past week, Phiyega has demonstrated a deep desire to distance herself from the history and culture of the force. By highlighting her lack of policing experience, and foregrounding her previous management roles, the commissioner seems to be saying, "I am not one of them, I can bring something new".
Yet this is in direct contrast to her statements and posture in the days following the Marikana slayings.
While the nation was in shock over the bloodshed, Phiyega stood firmly behind her guys. These conflicting postures, struck within a culture that already sees women as paper-pushers, and men as heroes, have not helped the commissioner.
Instead, as Kwanele Sosibo suggested in an article in the Mail & Guardian about the police chief's Farlam commission testimony, Phiyega looks, "Like a blind woman feeling her way with a walking stick".
To understand why Phiyega has fared so badly, it is worth looking again at her credentials. The management experience that Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa pointed to when he introduced Phiyega to the country was thin in the first place.
Prior to her current job, she had served on a range of state boards; as chair of the Presidential Review Committee on State Owned Enterprises and deputy chairperson of the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers. She also served as a commissioner at the Road Accident Fund, and had worked at a director level within the Department of Social Development as well.
In short, none of the posts that she had held had significant executive authority, and none would have prepared her to head an institution that employs close to 200 000 people and manages a budget of R65-billion. T
he much vaunted management experience that Phiyega continually refers to when she speaks about herself, seems non-existent. The SAPS will be hard for anyone to lead; in addition to being deeply misogynistic, it thrives on a culture of impunity, it is hierarchical in the worst ways, and has become a national symbol of corruption and abuse of power.
Having sat in the driver's seat of a large institution, I empathise with Phiyega. She has most certainly personally experienced sexism while in this job, and perhaps the media has questioned her differently because she is a woman.
This is not an unfathomable notion. But the real issue here is that Phiyega seems to have walked into this job without the requisite management experience, without a plan for how she would resist the inevitable sexism that would confront her. She also lacked a plan for whether she would be a slow reformer or a loud transformer, and has very little political heft; she lacks, for example, the authentic no nonsense tone of Lindiwe Sisulu, and she cannot seem to muster the steely focus of a Lindiwe Zulu.
For all of these reasons, Phiyega should step down. Once she is gone, Mthethwa and President Jacob Zuma will need to think carefully about her replacement. At the very least, South Africa deserves a woman with a plan as our chief of police.
Sisonke Msimang is a columnist and women's rights activist. In 2012 she was named a Yale World Fellow, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.