Heat on for Phiyega as respected Petros leaves

Respected outgoing Gauteng police commissioner, Mzwandile Petros, insists he was not pushed in the fall-out over his successor's recall over criminal charges. 

"Lets put this to rest, I actually indicated even when I came to Gauteng that when the contract expires I don't intend to stay because there were many of things I put on hold, personal things I'd like to do," Petros said in a radio interview on Monday. He added that this was communicated to the then-commissioner and premier of the province, who would have wanted him to stay on longer. 

"Eighteen years ago, when I joined, I thought this would be a project of five years and I would go and pursue other things," said Petros, whose last day at work was on Saturday. 

The reasons initially given for Petros's departure – that it would be against the law for him to continue as a provincial commissioner for more than 10 years – were revealed as incorrect. It led to rumblings that the admired leader was being ousted as he was a threat to unpopular national police commissioner Riah Phiyega.

Petros was a rare police leader who commanded respect across the board. Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler Barnard told the Star he was a "career police officer who has brought great professionalism to the areas he's worked in".

Coming from an intelligence background, Petros made his name as police commissioner in the Western Cape for seven years before he was brought to crime-ridden Gauteng in 2010. He increasingly earned a reputation for being accessible, aware of the community's needs and opposed to corruption. He increased police presence in public areas and, during his first year in his new role, the rate of serious crime in Gauteng dropped by 11.6%, followed by an 8.1% drop the year after.

Withdrawn Gauteng commissioner
Petros's successor Bethuel Zuma was withdrawn as the new Gauteng provincial commissioner by Phiyega on Saturday, hours after being appointed, thanks to criminal charges that came to light after his appointment.

Zuma was reportedly arrested in Pietermaritzburg in September 2008 for alleged drunk driving, not stopping at a roadblock and refusing to allow traffic officials to test the level of alcohol in his blood. He allegedly locked himself in a house for hours in order to prevent officers from breathalysing him.

Zuma has 20 years of experience as a police officer. He is not related to President Jacob Zuma.

The charges were widely reported in the media, further damning Phiyega for hiring him for the job without knowing his background. Critics have pointed out that Phiyega had long notice of Petros's contract coming to an end and therefore had enough time to do background checks on his replacement, who has been facing charges since 2008. He appeared in court shortly after his arrest and since then, the case has been withdrawn and reinstated on several occasions, according to reports.

But Phiyega said in another radio interview that she was not embarrassed about her U-turn over Zuma. 

No charges against Zuma
Phiyega said she only became aware of the charges against Zuma after announcing his appointment because Zuma doesn't have a criminal record. 

"Major General Zuma doesn't have a criminal record. We checked that when we approached him. We also checked our disciplinary system. He has no pending disciplinary action against him. That's a fact."

Phiyega said it was Zuma's responsibility to make the South African Police Service aware of all his charges.

"In May this year, I issued an instruction to all the police asking them to declare any pending criminal charges against them. So the onus is with the employee to come forward. We created the platform. When you have an agreement with your employees, you expect members to oblige with an instruction."

When asked if Zuma will face disciplinary action for lying to the police, Phiyega said internal processes would begin because instructions haven't been complied with.

She said Lieutenant General Lesetja Mothiba, divisional commissioner for visible policing, who will act as the provincial commissioner of Gauteng, has been checked and added that he has been with the force for a long time, EWN reported

Marikana and other mistakes
The latest blunder for Phiyega comes on the back of a series of damaging mistakes, most of which are wrapped up in the disastrous Marikana massacre that happened under her tenure. Her continued response to the shootings in August 2012 has been widely panned. 

Meanwhile, a series of callers to the radio show where Petros was being interview testified to his strong leadership. Officers who had worked under him sang his praises and community members related stories of how he was highly accessible and acted on community concerns. 

Petros said corruption in the police has always been a "painful experience" for him. "It is actually painful, worse still is when you see a policeman wearing a uniform being arrested."

He added that he was confident that ordinary police officers who were "sick and tired of those who are scandalising our name" were dealing with the scourge of corruption in the force. 

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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