Cele: Between a rock and a hard place

Suspended national police commissioner Bheki Cele finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

Sitting on the hard court benches at an inquiry the likes of which the nation has not seen since Hansie blamed the devil for his match-fixing; since Gerald Majola broke down after being accused of treating Cricket South Africa like his personal fiefdom, since judge Meyer Joffe called Jackie Selebi a disgrace to South Africa and the police, since ...

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We seem to have a lot of these reputation-destroying inquiries, don’t we.

So Cele, he’s the top cop with the gangster look?
The very same.
Although he’s not really our top cop any more. Cele found himself in hot water after the Sunday Times exposed his approval of leases for two buildings, both owned by property mogul Roux Shabangu, at the vastly inflated price of over R1.6-billion. The deal was never put out to tender and was instead negotiated directly with Shabangu.

He was axed from his role as national commissioner of police last October, months after public protector Thuli Madonsela said his conduct had been improper, unlawful and amounted to maladministration.

But he’s still has the perks—he’s receiving a full salary and all his benefits while on suspension. That’s probably how he pays for those snappy suits and jaunty fedoras he’s been wearing to court.

The wheels of justice sure do turn slowly.
They do, especially if you’re tight with the president. Jacob Zuma vacillated over the public protector’s reports for months before finally suspending Cele. At one point it was rumoured that Cele had been offered a face-saving diplomatic posting—a tactic used in the past to get party loyalists out of harm’s way. Government denied the rumours and Cele never did end up making that trip to Japan.

So if things go badly Cele will end up in the cell next to Selebi?
Not quite. This isn’t a criminal case, it’s an inquiry. The board, which is headed by retired Free State judge Jake Moloi, is trying to establish whether Cele acted corruptly or dishonestly and whether he is fit for the job of national commissioner of police and has the capacity to efficiently execute his duties.

He’s been accused of being a bad administrator and doing a dodgy deal but it’s still unclear what he stood to gain by signing Shabangu’s lease agreements.

It’s not going well, I take it?
We’ve got all the usual drama—witnesses who refuse to appear before the court, the court calling the justice minister to force those witnesses to appear, a union that’s stepped in to silence another witness, and Cele contradicting himself over and over again.

And it’s looking quite grim for Cele.

Police officials and their counterparts in the department of public works raised their concerns about the way the lease agreement was being handled, and they they placed their concerns on record.

But Cele, for reasons known only to himself, steamrolled over the careful officials, reassigning dissenting staff, complaining about those who challenged his authority, andignoring a call to investigate concerns about irregularities in the process.

There’s documentation that shows Cele identified both of the buildings concerned and that he signed off on the lease agreements without first seeking legal advice, even though the buildings were far larger than what police required.

It now appears the police’s chief financial officer only got a look at the lease agreement after it was approved, and then had to re-prioritise the police’s projects to fund it.

This isn’t looking good. What’s his defence?
He blames his subordinates. Cele told the board of inquiry that he trusted “experts” to iron out all the details and that, instead of reading through the lease agreements, he simply signed on the dotted line.

He’s tried to pin the blame on the former head of police procurement, Hamilton Hlela, who took an early retirement shortly after the scandal broke. At the time, Hlela claimed he’d been offered a golden handshake to quit the police force.

Last week Hlela called Cele a liar and testified that he’d only followed Cele’s explicit orders when he arranged the lease.

Does Cele even have a leg to stand on here?
In a word, no.

Law and common sense dictate that you should never sign a document you haven’t read. The national treasury demands you don’t sign off on a purchase worth more than R500 000 without their approval. And in his role as the police’s accounting officer, Cele’s job description says he is ultimately responsible for the police’s financials.

Cele has contradicted himself more than once and his evasiveness while on the stand hasn’t helped matters. Judge Jake Moloi has repeatedly asked him to be less argumentative and more specific with his answers. He went so far as to warn Cele that his evasiveness is making a terrible impression.

He might as well claim that the devil made him do it.

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker

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