Police spin doctor grilled by MPs
It was national police spokesperson Solly Makgale’s turn to face the music in Parliament on Friday.
The South African police’s chief spin doctor found himself in the firing line as he explained to MPs how a media statement “misrepresenting” Parliament’s portfolio committee on police was issued. MPs indicated they would complain to the police minister after they grilled Makgale.
MPs were not happy with his responses to their concerns about the contents of a media statement issued after MPs had scolded national and provincial police management over their public backing of national police commissioner Riah Phiyega.
Makgale issued a statement on August 1, on behalf of the police’s board of commissioners (BOC) apparently expressing support for Phiyega, after President Jacob Zuma had asked her to explain why she should not face a board of inquiry into her fitness to hold office as a result of the findings of the Marikana commission of inquiry.
After MPs raked members of the BOC—which include Phiyega’s deputies and the nine provincial police commissioners—over the coals on August 12, they were told to retract the statement.
However, instead of a retraction, Makgale issued another statement on behalf of the BOC, reading: “Nonetheless, the Committee was of the view that the statement had unintended consequences in that it created an impression that the Board was pre-empting the process that the President has initiated following the release of the Marikana Commission’s Report.”
Makgale denied he wrote the statement, insisting the provincial commissioners had drafted the statement, without any coercion from Phiyega, and that he had merely issued it.
It later emerged that Free State police commissioner Thabethe Mpembe had not signed the statement.
“In this regard, all the provincial commissioners indicated to me in writing that they agree with the statement, with the exception of the provincial commissioner of the Free State,” Makgale said on Friday.
“When I had a discussion with him on the phone, he indicated to me he discussed the statement with one other provincial commissioner and that he was comfortable with it. An hour later, he then sent me an SMS to indicate his discomfort.”
Makgale told MPs the meeting that decided on the statement being issued was an informal one, and while Phiyega was present, he denied she influenced commissioners to issue the statement.
’‘Meeting held in a shebeen’
ANC MP Risimati Mavunda was not happy hearing this, saying: “I just imagined the type of meeting held in a shebeen. There is no order, and there is no chairperson, and everybody is talking to everybody.”
Mavunda’s colleague Leonard Ramatlakane was equally incensed, suggesting someone was being “economical with the truth”, to which Makgale responded: “I must say I’m disturbed to be accused of lying.”
While admitting part of his job required him to offer communication advice to Phiyega, his direct superior, Makgale denied he was pressured.
“I was under no pressure to issue the statement.
I’ve outlined the process that was followed and that statement was then issued,” he said.
“Should I be believed or not? I’ve been in the job of communications for over 15 years now. I’m a principled person and I take my work extremely seriously. I do not believe there is a reason … that I should not be believed. I have told the truth.”
Committee chairperson Francois Beukman said the committee was concerned that its recommendations to police management were not being taken seriously, and has suggested a meeting with the police ministry to discuss this.
“Today’s proceedings warrant us as a committee to enter into discussions with the executive authority to indicate there is serious problems in our analysis with corporate governance within SAPS,” said Beukman.
“We at the portfolio committee are not going to accept a situation where there is not seriousness with our recommendations.”
The statements issued by Makgale would form the basis of a Parliamentary inquiry initiated by the committee.
Earlier on Friday, the committee adopted the terms of reference of the inquiry, to be conducted in terms of National Assembly rule 201, to determine whether Makgale and other senior police officers lied to MPs.
The terms of reference include that the inquiry:
- Establish and consider whether the relevant officers were truthful with their testimony in presenting the facts leading up to the issuing of the said statement;
- Establish and consider whether the documents and electronic material made available to the committee to verify the statements made during the said committee meetings;
- Establish and consider whether the relevant statements were made in compliance with the National Instruction 156 (dealing with media communication within the police);
- Establish and consider whether the relevant conduct by the officers is in line with good governance principles;
- Establish and consider whether the relevant conduct prejudiced, embarrassed and discredited the SAPS; and
- Establish and consider whether the said statements were aimed at influencing the process by the President in response to the recommendation of the Farlam Commssion in relation to the National Police Commissioner.
The inquiry would take place in October, and the provincial commissioners and Phiyega’s national deputies would be called to testify.
The Farlam commission recommended Phiyega face a board of inquiry into her fitness to hold office, after it criticised her decisions in the lead up to the Marikana massacre on August 16, 2012, when 34 miners were shot dead by police.
- Additional reporting by Thulani Gqirana