Tshwane digs deep for JZ's road warriors

Motorcycle outriders lead a convoy carrying US First Lady Michelle Obama through Soweto in 2011. (AFP)

Motorcycle outriders lead a convoy carrying US First Lady Michelle Obama through Soweto in 2011. (AFP)

After the police bought an undisclosed number of motorbikes late last year for presidential bodyguards who couldn't ride them, police commissioner Riah Phiyega asked Tshwane Metro Police officers to provide a daily escort to President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, at an estimated cost of half a million rands a month.

The idea apparently came after United States President Barack Obama, who was in South Africa last June on a working visit, praised the Tshwane motorbike unit.

While the bikes stood idle at the presidential protection unit headquarters in Pretoria (they were subsequently moved to an undisclosed location), Phiyega wrote to the Tshwane Metro Police department asking their motorbike officers to "assist" the presidential bodyguards.

Tshwane spokesperson Blessing Manale confirmed on Wednesday that "we received a request from the South African Police Service to participate in the security operation relating to both the national state funeral [of Nelson Mandela] and the movement of the president and the deputy president outside of Gauteng".

On Thursday, Phiyega's spokesperson, Solomon Makgale, said he would not discuss the president and his deputy's security details.

Security matters
Presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj, who could not be reached on Thursday, has previously refused to discuss the issue, saying all matters relating to security were handled by the police. 

Motlanthe's spokesperson, Thabo Masebe, said on Thursday that "this is a police matter" and had nothing to do with the deputy president.

But some of the Tshwane officers, presidential and VIP bodyguards and the police who spoke to Mail & Guardian are stunned by the costs involved and the lack of transparency surrounding the operation.

A senior Tshwane Metro official on Tuesday expressed frustration about the growing demands being placed on the metro's police and said that the operation was straining the municipality.

"This is becoming too much because it's … now an everyday thing," the official said. He asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Vanity project
Three other sources – two Tshwane Metro Police officers and a former city boss – confirmed the request from Phiyega and asked why the city was carrying the costs of what they perceived as a vanity project. They couldn't be named because they were not authorised to speak for the city.

"The Americans liked the Tshwane motorbike guys.
They are the best in the world. And apparently Obama also remarked that he was happy with our work. And this is how the idea came about," a Metro Police officer said.

"We were not told the full story. It doesn't make any sense why the city must provide services for [the] national [police department]. We [Tshwane] are footing the bill."

Another officer, with intimate knowledge of the city's Metro Police budget, estimated the overtime cost of the Tshwane officers working on the presidential motorcade at about half a million rands a month. This could not be confirmed independently.

But 22 officers who were assigned to escort Zuma and Motlanthe at an ANC rally in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, in January cost the city half a million rands in a week. But, unlike daily escorts within the province, those on an out-of-province assignment are provided with accommodation and subsistence allowances.

Jacob Zuma's security detail was on show this Easter. (Paul Botes, M&G)

According to documents in the possession of the M&G, the Tshwane Metro Police officers received R2-million in overtime pay for the 11 days between Mandela's death and his burial. The budget for those who attended the Qunu funeral also included transport, accommodation and a subsistence allowance.

The almost daily escort operation is said to be draining Tshwane financially and the city has had to transfer funds from its resource-starved speed-camera operations to pay overtime allowance for the officers providing the escort.

Manale evaded questions about the costs but said that "the city manager … approved the participation and expenditure for the requested services".

Some of the motorbike officers travel from Pretoria to Johannes­burg and back almost daily to fetch Motlanthe, where he lives.

"The guys who escort the deputy president are on the road by 5am," said the Tshwane Metro Police officer.

No training
A member of the presidential unit also said on Wednesday that "the idea was for Tshwane Metro guys to train our guys". "The motorbikes were bought late last year. But none of us was trained in that kind of riding … no training took place; we don't know why," he said. He asked not to be named because of "paranoia, mistrust in the unit".

A member of the police VIP unit, which is responsible for protecting premiers and ministers, said on Wednesday that there was a recruitment drive to join a to-be-established motorbike detachment in the presidential protection unit. "But nothing happened ever since. We heard nothing," he said, asking not to be named because of the "nature of my job".

The presidential protection officer was surprised by the use of Tshwane Metro officers because the presidential team was initially assisted by the Gauteng provincial traffic police to clear the traffic.

"We agreed with the Gauteng provincial police [to control traffic] when there was noise regarding the blue-light brigade," he said.

He said the motorbike escort was "not a bad thing in principle" if it was deployed on special occasions, such as for state visits by foreign heads of state, "but not every day".

Rory Steyn, who was one of the team leaders of Mandela's protection unit during his term in office, shared the concern. He was surprised that the Tshwane Metro Police provided daily services to both Zuma and Motlanthe.

Steyn said: "We would, on very rare occasions, request the assistance of metro police, and there was always a good reason for that. But to do it every day and expect the taxpayer to foot the bill is wrong."

Steyn said it would not be a problem if motorcycles used on a daily basis for Zuma and Motlanthe belonged to the SAPS's presidential protection unit because it was their mandate to provide security for the two executives. He added that motorcycles were an excellent way to protect a motorcade.

Steyn also said that, normally, extra security was deployed after a threat or security analysis. "One should say 'this is the risk and this is how we have agreed to prevent it'. I would question when people say ‘let's do it because it's looking good'."

He acknowledged that the president and his deputy deserved to be "adequately protected" but "an average South African wants to know those privileges are not abused".

He said, whatever the reasons were for adding the Tshwane Metro Police to the motorcades, it could be "almost degrading to the current presidential protection unit for Metro police to do their job". – Additional reporting by Moshoeshoe Monare

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge

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