What suit will police minister fill?

Nkosinathi Nhleko will have his work cut out to mend the police's tarnished image. (Gallo)

Nkosinathi Nhleko will have his work cut out to mend the police's tarnished image. (Gallo)

New Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko was puzzled to hear this week that he had been labelled – like his predecessor, Nathi Mthethwa – an “empty suit”.

After being told by the Mail & Guardian that the Democratic Alliance had issued a press release with the headline “New police minister: Nkosinathi Nhleko, yet another empty suit?”, he asked what this meant. 

The party said Mthethwa had evaded accountability and failed to take effective action during his term, but Nhleko said it is too soon to arrive at conclusions as far as he is concerned. “It is too early to say whether I am a empty suit or a full suit,” he chuckled.

Yet police brutality did spike in Mthethwa’s tenure, and Nhleko (49) is keenly aware of the public’s emotions around this burning issue.

It was on Mthethwa’s watch that police shot Andries Tatane in a service delivery protest in Ficksburg in 2011 and killed 34 people during a strike at Marikana on August 16 2012. In yet another case last year, immigrant Emidio Macia was dragged behind a police van and tortured, and subsequently died.

Pillar of stability
Nhleko said policing should be one of the pillars of stability in a country undergoing reconstruction and development.

“What this means is that the institution of policing must play its designated role,” he said.
“But so must each one of us as citizens play a role in bringing about a socially stable and secure society. And I think what needs to be done is to manage a mobilisation of the resource base, and all to put shoulders to the wheel to bring about the common objective of social stability.”

With crime remaining at unacceptable levels in South Africa, Nhleko knows he has inherited a tough portfolio.

He has held various government and ANC parliamentary posts, including as labour department director general and as the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament. 

Although he has also served as a regional commissioner of correctional services and as head of the specialised anti-corruption unit at the department of public service and administration, he appears humbled by the “weighty responsibility” he has now been given.

Fearless fighter
According to some who have worked with Nhleko, he fought fearlessly to tackle what he saw as irregularities when he was director general of labour. They said he was sidelined and moved to another department when he fell out with Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, who has retained her post in the new Cabinet.

Oliphant had told Parliament she had referred a Compensation Fund issue to the Special Investi­gating Unit (SIU), but Nhleko said no such investigation had been launched.

At the centre of the row in the labour department was the fact that Nhleko had launched a forensic investigation into the fund, which has received qualified audits and disclaimers for the past five years. Last year it failed to account for more than R155-million used on consultants. In trying to implement a turnaround strategy for the fund, Nhleko had already informed its head, Shadrack Mkhonto, that he planned to suspend him. 

Yet according to the evidence given to the standing committee on public accounts in November last year, Oliphant claimed she had written a letter telling her director general to halt the forensic investigation and lift Mkhonto’s suspension because she had referred the investigation to the SIU. Oliphant was later accused of misleading Parliament, as the SIU said it had received no such request.

Musa Zondi, the spokesperson for labour, confirmed this week that the SIU was not investigating the matter.

Nhleko said there is a “lot of interesting spin going around”.

“Firstly, there is no state institution that has made a finding that there was tender fraud, and neither has the department of labour. I was trying to address what I saw as defects in the system. But then there were people who didn’t like that and rumours started. There was no tender awarded. I didn’t stop it, but it was stopped by the relevant minister at the time [Oliphant]. The question that needs to be asked is this: If there was anything that I did wrong, then what did they do about it?”

Following the upheaval in the labour department, Nhleko was seconded in November last year to the compliance department in the office of Lindiwe Sisulu, then minister of public service and administration.

Shaik accusations
He was also accused of advocating for the release of President Jacob Zuma’s former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, from prison, but he dismissed this as untrue.

“Those that know will understand that it is not a decision that will be made by a regional commissioner in the correctional services department. It is a matter that is considered by an independent parole board, which reports to correctional services,” he said. “I always get blamed for Mr Shaik’s parole but I don’t know why, because I was not even on the parole board.”

Asked whether he thought he would work well with the national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, Nhleko said he had more than 25 years’ experience of managing people and expected no problems. 

Ironically, it was Nhleko who was widely tipped to replace Bheki Cele as commissioner, but Phiyega was appointed instead.

Nhleko has a master’s in leadership and change management from Leeds University in the United Kingdom.

He matriculated at Amangwe High School in Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal, and was active in student politics. “You went to school but the next day you were locked up by the police.” The instability in the country had affected his academic performance, he said, as it had for many of the youth fighting an unjust system.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country. Read more from Glynnis Underhill

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