/ 30 October 2013

Riah Phiyega: Failure and dashed hopes

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega.
National police commissioner Riah Phiyega. (Oupa Nkosi)

When Phiyega wrote an essay for the Mail & Guardian's 2011 Book of South African Women, she quoted Jamaican university professor Pat Morgan, who said: "The 21st century woman embodies the hopes of her nation, knows the history of her people, exposes injustice and comforts the poor and the unemployed." 

It's a quote that takes on a disturbing tone when one looks back at Phiyega's short and tumultuous time as national police commissioner.

Phiyega's appointment was a controversial one. Security experts long lamented the fact that it has been years since the police service was lead by a person from within, someone with a deep understanding of the culture and politics of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Neither Bheki Cele nor Jacki Selebi, former national commissioners, came from within the SAPS, and Phiyega was trained as a social worker, her experience largely limited to time at Transnet, the National Ports Authority, National Welfare Authority and the Road Accident Fund. 

At the time, Phiyega was chairperson of the presidential review committee on state-owned enterprises and deputy chairperson of the independent commission on the remuneration of office bearers. She became the first woman to hold the post of national police commissioner.

Despite her competence as an administrator, there were serious questions about whether she would be able to lead a hierarchical and male-dominated organisation such as the SAPS. 

But both President Jacob Zuma and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa brushed off these criticisms, and Phiyega said she would find her way by working with senior police officers, "seeking counsel, learning and listening".

It's unlikely that any of them would have imagined the uphill battle that Phiyega was to face.

When she was appointed, Phiyega spoke about transforming the police service into one that was more caring and sensitive to the needs of South Africans. 

"We want our public to want to give the SAPS officers a hug when they see them. To give them a glass of water. To be proud of them," she said at the time. 

The reality could not be further from this ideal. In the 18 months or so since her appointment, Phiyega and the SAPS have stumbled from one crisis to the next. SAPS members have perpetrated heinous and high profile acts of violence.  These include the beating and subsequent death of Emidio Macia – a taxi driver who was handcuffed and dragged behind a police vehicle for resisting arrest and obstructing traffic – poor handling of protest actions, and of course the killing of 34 miners at Marikana in August last year

She has failed at more administrative tasks as well.

When Phiyega took the stand at the commission of inquiry into the shootings at Marikana, her evasive responses to questioning did little to endear her to either the family of the dead miners or the wider public. It was widely speculated that Phiyega was under instruction to protect Mthethwa. 

In September, Phiyega withdrew her appointment of Bethuel Zuma as new Gauteng provincial commissioner just hours after appointing him. Zuma was facing criminal charges but Phiyega said she was unaware of these until shortly after she had appointed him.

And in October, she announced that she was placing the new acting crime intelligence head Chris Ngcobo on special leave, after it emerged that there were "discrepancies" in his qualifications.

More recently, Phiyega has been accused of tipping off Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer about a probe against him being carried out by crime intelligence. 

Phiyega denied the allegations, but on Tuesday, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate confirmed that it was investigating the matter.

The Democratic Alliance has called for Phiyega to be suspended pending the investigations, but the ANC in Parliament has said this is little more than "narrow and short-sighted political opportunism". Meanwhile Phiyega continues to enjoy the support of both the president and the police minister.

Newly appointed to the post and speaking at her first press conference as commisioner, Phiyega famously said that "you don't have to be a drunkard to own a bottle store". 

"I don't have experience but give me 12 months and judge me on the outcomes," Phiyega said.

The outcomes, it appears, speak for themselves.