#BringBackBhekiCele: Can it solve the police's problems?

Former police commissioner Bheki Cele. (Reuters)

Former police commissioner Bheki Cele. (Reuters)

George Bush did not use the term “revisionism” kindly. It was a word he bandied about, like a gun-slinging cowboy, to discredit detractors of his various war efforts. 

More optimistically, American civil war historian James McPherson, said revisionism is the lifeblood of academia. It is a “continuing dialogue between the present and the past”. Somewhere between these interpretations lies the South African Twitterati, who hashtagged #BringBackBhekiCele this week, crediting the former police commissioner with reducing violent crime during his term. 

Cele’s own version of events, trumpeted by swathes of the Twitterverse, is that we were somehow getting it right while he was at the helm. Fortunately for us, Cele stands ready to leap back into action. His spokesperson, Vuyo Mkhize told The Witness this week that Cele is in the process of challenging his axing in the high court in Pretoria, pending the confirmation of a trial date. “Let me solve the problem!” declared the former commissioner. 

Revisiting the NDP
But perhaps Cele’s enthusiasm for his former job is an appropriate moment to revisit how the National Development Plan (NDP) envisages the appointment of senior police management. It does not envisage a scenario where a politician, channelling his inner under-10 hockey novice, raises his hand, and yells “Pick me! Pick me!”, at which point the president, channelling his inner hockey coach, appoints said politician to lead the team. 

The NDP envisages a more competitive selection process – one based on “objective criteria”.

“The national commissioner and deputies should be appointed by the president on a competitive basis. A selection panel, established by the president, should select and interview candidates for these posts against objective criteria.” 

The president would then make the appointments based on these recommendations. The NDP states that this would increase public trust in the process. The NDP also emphasises the need to demilitarise the police. Cele is often credited with some kind of tough stance on crime; he oversaw the reintroduction of military ranks into the police service in 2010. It was intended to restore discipline to the police’s rank and file. 

But the police’s brutal treatment of criminals and protests, while these crimes continue to rise in number and severity, precedes and will outlive Cele. As pointed out by Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies, this popular understanding of militarisation is not the primary driver of police brutality. Instead, it is a breakdown in command and control that plagues the police, according to Burger. 

The police themselves acknowledge this. Cele’s tough talk and showmanship probably did not even begin to address the police’s internal difficulties. Nevertheless, Chapter 12 of the NDP, “Building safer communities”, says a lack of trust in the police is linked to its remilitarisation. 

“The remilitarisation of the police in recent years has not garnered greater community respect for police officers, nor has it secured higher conviction rates. Certainly, a paramilitary police force does not augur well for a modern democracy and a capable developmental state.”

Shoot to kill?
In 2011, Cele said he never said “shoot to kill”.

He explained: “This is what I said: If a member of the police is called to a dangerous situation to protect the public and, in that situation, somebody makes his work of arresting criminals difficult to the extent that somebody must lose his/her life, that must not be a member of the South African police who loses his/her life.” 

Unknown to Cele, the statute books provide a slightly more nuanced interpretation of justifiable homicide. The NDP continues: “Demilitarise the police. The police should be selected and trained to be professional and impartial …” 

Cele’s impartiality on issues like the public protector, constitutionalism and political allegiance are not in question. His partiality is well-known: 

Reinstating Cele would neither solve nor worsen the police’s problems to any great degree. The issues run much deeper than who wears the commissioner’s hat. 

But reappointing Cele, short of a court order rendering his firing irrational, would surely mean that government views that the NDP, much like it views the public protector’s investigation into Nkanlda, as a mere suggestion. And that would not “solve the problem”.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans is a Mail & Guardian news reporter.She's a recovering musician who became a journalist while interning for the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley.She spent three years reporting there before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane).Her areas of interest include crime, law, governance, and the nexus between business and politics.Her areas of disinterest include skyscrapers. Read more from Sarah Evans


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