It was a Saturday afternoon, hours after General Riah Phiyega made her literally 11th-hour submissions to President Jacob Zuma about why she is fit to hold office, when a media statement from the South African Police Service’s national media office popped into inboxes.
The statement came from the police’s board of commissioners: the nine provincial commissioners, supported by deputy national commissioner of corporate services Lieutenant General Nobubele Mbekela, deputy national commissioner of policing Lieutenant General Kehla Sitole and acting divisional commissioner Lieutenant General Bongiwe Zulu.
There was no major crime bust on that first day of August that could prompt a police statement of this magnitude.
Bafana goalie Senzo Meyiwa’s murderers had – still – not been found, nine months after he was shot and killed in Vosloorus on October 26 last year.
There were still no arrests in connection with the panga assault and robbery of prominent economist Dawie Roodt by four armed men at his Pretoria home nine days earlier.
‘Unfair and negative attitude’
What concerned the high-ups, the top brass, the upper echelon of our men and women in blue, when most of South Africa was watching sport, having a braai or lying low on a Saturday afternoon, was “the prevailing unfair and largely negative attitude towards the national commissioner of the SAPS, General Riah Phiyega”, over the recommendations of the Farlam commission.
The 1 263-word statement was issued as a “hands off Phiyega” call. It said the board of commissioners has noticed a “tendency” to reduce everything, especially negative issues relating to policing, “to the person of the national commissioner, as if the SAPS is a one-person show”.
“It is therefore appropriate that the board publicly declares its full support for General Phiyega, and fully endorses her efforts in turning around the SAPS.
“We are compelled to take this stance as some unnamed sources are misinforming the media, alleging that we are unhappy with the national commissioner.”
It sounded like a press statement issued by an indignant political party or an annoyed trade union. The ANC issued a similar-sounding press release a few years ago when there was an unsuccessful bid by the opposition in Parliament to have President Jacob Zuma impeached.
Smelled of politics
The statement by the board of commissioners smelled of politics. And when ANC MP and chairperson of the parliamentary committee on police Francois Beukman read about it the next day, Sunday, he had the same view.
“We read it in the papers and we said this is not right; it is not proper,” he said this week. “We had to deal with it.”
And deal with it they did. In a rare turn of events, the ANC and the opposition rallied together. The very same high-ups, the top brass, the upper echelon of our men and women in blue, the same ones who signed that Saturday statement, were invited for a tap dance before Parliament’s portfolio committee on police on Wednesday.
Humble pie was distributed like pizza at a child’s party. They were advised to leave politics to the politicians and stick to their day jobs. They were forced to apologise to the president, the country and the committee, and to retract the statement.
Facing a roomful of angry and hostile MPs, the commissioners sang the same tune when asked to justify their actions, citing a need to bring stability to the SAPS.
Made to apologise
The commissioners, excluding Lieutenant General Mmamonnye Ngobeni from KwaZulu-Natal, who was not present, were each made to apologise and promise that it would never happen again.
In what appeared to be a scripted format, the reluctant commissioners seemed to gag on the humble pie and express regret over the storm caused by the statement, and some grudgingly retracted it.
The ANC’s view was that the commissioners could not issue a public statement supporting Phiyega while Zuma is still applying his mind to the recommendations of the Farlam commission and determining her fitness to hold office.
The opposition agreed, with Dianne Kohler Barnard of the Democratic Alliance going a step further and asking for Phiyega to be removed.
So why did the ruling party and the opposition see eye to eye on this matter?
‘Not the right precedent’
“We were all of the opinion that this was not the right precedent,” Beukman told the Mail & Guardian, adding that police commissioners should not be playing politics.
In the week or two that Parliament was dealing with the apparent politicking by police bosses, Phiyega appeared to be doing the same, as she tried to rally support from ANC leaders.
Last Monday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga seemed to show support for Phiyega, telling a media breakfast briefing that the latter could not be held entirely accountable for the Marikana tragedy.
“She was only two months in that position,” Motshekga said.
A few days later, Phiyega was sitting in the back of an ANC Women’s League congress. She went mostly unnoticed and had probably been invited by Motshekga. The latter was voted out as women’s league president at the congress.
Not a new tactic
This tactic of using friends in high political places is not new to ANC deployees in senior government positions when they land in hot water.
SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng did the same, repeatedly and successfully. For example, when the public protector recommended that he be suspended for falsifying his matric qualifications, Motsoeneng rallied support among those sympathetic to him in the ANC, and loyal SABC staffers held a press conference to support him.
The rhetoric was similar to that issued by the SAPS commissioners.
Communications Minister Faith Muthambi did everything in her power to protect Motsoeneng. A section of the ANC Youth League even marched in his support.
Muthambi reportedly said in a letter to the SABC board that Zuma “loves” Motsoeneng so much that they had to support him.
That is where the similarities end between Motsoeneng and Phiyega.
Operator par excellence Motsoeneng is still running the SABC, and is stronger than ever.
Poor Phiyega, on the other hand, stands isolated.
Politicians, even those who were once sympathetic to Phiyega, are afraid even to mention her name – almost certain she is on her way out.
On Tuesday, Zuma volunteered in a rare press conference at the Union Buildings that Phiyega’s response to the recommendations of the Farlam commission about her fitness to hold office is receiving attention.
“We will provide feedback in due course to the nation on progress being made in the implementation of the recommendations,” he said. This feedback on whether Phiyega should face a commission of inquiry into her fitness to hold office could come at any time.
Even those who pride themselves on being in Zuma’s inner circle don’t know what his next move will be. The only certainty is there will be no letter claiming that “JZ loves Riah”, and that she should therefore be supported.