Editorial: Root out top rot in public service

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega. (File picture: Herman Verwey, Foto24)

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega. (File picture: Herman Verwey, Foto24)

It’s so hard to get good civil servants these days. Especially for the top jobs. Riyah Phiyega, the national police commissioner, was suspended on Wednesday.
On the same day John Block, the ANC’s Northern Cape chair and finance MEC in the province, was found guilty of corruption after a trial that has dragged on for five years.

It was announced on October 8 that controversial SABC chief Hlaudi Motsoeneng would face disciplinary proceedings, though the broadcaster has declined (so far) to suspend him, despite the judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The court affirmed the judgment of the high court, which had in turn ratified the recommendations of the public protector’s report that Motsoeneng had sought to challenge.

He says he will take the matter to the Constitutional Court, but there is every likelihood that he will be rebuffed there too.

This is promising, not only in that the public broadcaster may be able to rid itself of a chief who acts increasingly like a mad dictator, but also in that a precedent will be set for further cases in which the public protector’s conclusions have been challenged or dismissed – in particular, those relating to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.

It’s a pity that the courts have to deal with the issue of civil servants who are guilty of wrongdoing – that should be the state’s job.

But then the state, by means such as presidential appointments, has generated the problem in the first place by putting notably unqualified people in top jobs and then, when they are accused of wrongdoing or even plain inability to do the job, protecting them to the bitter end.

Motsoeneng, for instance, has been able to stay in his job despite the exposure of his lies about his nonqualifications and his enormous pay hikes for himself, even as the SABC’s balance sheet slides further into the red.

The list of such people in high-paying positions in the public service, not to mention those in the state-owned enterprises, is long – and has engendered much instability in key institutions.

As we report in this edition, the head of the Hawks, Major General Mthandazo Ntlemeza, is supposed to be a new leader in crime-fighting but is compromised by unresolved allegations of corruption against him – serious allegations made by a police colleague and under investigation by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

It appears that these claims were not taken into consideration when Ntlemeza was appointed – and nor was a judge’s conclusion, in another case, that Ntlemeza was “dishonest” and “lacked integrity”.

Do we want to see more lawsuits against the president, such as that in which it was shown that his appointment of Menzi Simelane to the position of national prosecutions head was “irrational”?

On Phiyega specifically, her suspension comes as a result of the conclusions reached by the Farlam commission, which looked into the causes of the Marikana massacre.

It reached few definitive conclusions about culpability for the deaths of 34 miners there in 2012, but one thing that emerged clearly was Phiyega’s unsuitability for the job of national police commissioner – never mind inability.

She congratulated her trigger-happy officers on a job well done immediately after the massacre, and she fudged her testimony at the commission about an apparent police cover-up.

More recently, she gave a swath of police officers a pay hike – just as the latest crime statistics were reported, showing an alarming rise in murders and hijackings.

Judge Ian Farlam’s report was the catalyst for Phiyega’s suspension, pending an inquiry, but she demonstrated her unfitness for the commissioner job in other ways too.

She may or may not have made it so, but she has left behind a police service so factionalised that it can be hard to tell who is in what camp at any given moment. And, in an office where the players have the powers of search and seizure and arrest, office politics can be a deadly serious business.

The results of this factionalism are writ large: crime is up, entire divisions are turned against one another, and there are suspensions and golden handshakes and instability at every level. Morale is low, productivity is abysmal and South Africa is less safe.

It is just about faintly possible that the board of inquiry instituted by President Jacob Zuma to investigate Phiyega’s conduct and fitness will find her blameless and fit. Even if that were to happen, it would be unthinkable for her to return to her position.

Within the upper echelons of the police service Phiyega is considered either fairly competent and seriously slandered, or petty and vindictive on top of being incapable of doing her job. Which of those extremes is closest to reality is not as important as the simple fact that there is such a sharp division. Phiyega has proven herself powerless to change the minds of her detractors or to convince her supporters to take a less personalised view of her office.

Phiyega, even if endorsed by an independent inquiry, cannot halt what amounts to a civil war within the South African Police Service. Her removal at least raises the faint prospect of peace.

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