[From our archives] Phiyega flew too close to the sun

Riah Phiyega is now the third successive national police commissioner to fall spectacularly from grace. This continuing instability in the leadership of this critical national institution is obviously a serious concern.

Corruption and patronage were the undoing of Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele. But what was it that led to Phiyega’s undoing? In a word: Marikana.

There are some who appear to have some sympathy for Phiyega, regarding her current fortunes as evidence that she is being turned into the scapegoat for Marikana. But it would be incorrect to conclude that her current situation is not partly of her own creation. This is not to say she did not have any strengths.

Though she is accused of systematic dishonesty before the Marikana commission, there is no evidence that she has sought to use her position to enrich herself or her cronies, as was the case with both her predecessors. Thus she may be justified in claiming, as she has in recent interviews, that she sought to ensure the integrity of the police force’s financial management systems.

Marikana need not have destroyed her. A crisis of this kind might enable a police commissioner to distinguish himself or herself rather than be their undoing. Putting aside for the moment the likelihood that Phiyega was implicated in the decision to launch the Marikana operation, a tragedy such as Marikana may be an opportunity to put into practice one’s leadership abilities.

In such a situation, some kind of balancing act is required. Recognition of the interests of the police in a fair hearing of their side of the story should be accompanied by acknowledgment of the scale of the tragedy and of the interest of the public in seeing that the truth is told.

In Phiyega’s case, the approach that she took was always one-sided. As the report of the commission of inquiry says, her statement that “whatever happened represents the best possible policing” was made the day after the 34 people had been killed by the police, notwithstanding the fact that the president had announced that an inquiry would be set up to establish the truth about what had happened.

Throughout her evidence before the commission, she resolutely maintained this defensive stance, turning herself into the chief standard bearer of the SAPS programme of deception.

A key motivation for this was to protect the then minister of police, Nathi Mthethwa. This seems to be central to explaining Phiyega’s behaviour both in the immediate aftermath of Marikana and in front of the commission.

The reason for her undoing then was not simply Marikana but her proximity to her political bosses, her willingness to do their bidding and obligation to protect them. The position of national commissioner confers a special type of political access to those who do not already have it.

Because of her access to Mthethwa, Phiyega enjoyed a type of power that gave her a sense of being untouchable. With this political backing, there was no need for diplomacy or humility on her part.

As with Marikana, her response to the Khayelitsha commission of inquiry was confrontational, obstructionist and dismissive. Notwithstanding the fact that, in appointing the commission, the Western Cape provincial government was exercising powers conferred on it by the Constitution, Phiyega did everything in her power to neutralise the commission and discredit its findings.

Again the motive for her hostility to the commission would appear to have been political in nature. This was not simply because the commission was appointed by an opposition-controlled provincial government. It was an expression of her loyalty to her political master, Mthethwa, himself invested in strongly centralised control of the police force.

Up to that point, provincial governments, invariably controlled by the ANC, had routinely subordinated themselves to the minister and national commissioner. Because the exercise by the Western Cape government of their powers represented a breach of this pattern, it was treated with relentless hostility by Phiyega.

What is clear is that the political demise of Mthethwa, itself precipitated by Marikana, marked the end of her quasi-imperial power. Before that, she was untouchable. Any failings that she might have had, or allegations levelled against her, would have been swept under the carpet.

It is not surprising that it is Mthethwa’s absence, and the access and power that it conferred, that Phiyega now laments. She clearly enjoyed a close relationship with him, telling the Sunday Times as if nostalgically that she “used to have robust discussions” with him and bemoaning the fact that “[Minister of Police Nathi] Nhleko refused to take a call from her on Wednesday and ignored an SMS she sent the same day requesting a copy of a damning report”.

But should she have been given this extraordinary power?

Section 207(2) of the Constitution says it is the job of the national commissioner to exercise control of and manage the police service. But what does the national commissioner actually do?

Part of the answer may be that the police force is a bureaucratic machine that continues humming away unaffected by what the national commissioner says or does. He or she does not have to do anything, or may concern themselves with things that are relatively superficial in terms of their effect on the functioning of the police force.

In the case of Selebi, for example, it seems that he performed his role partly by keeping his head below the parapet. This included not bothering to appear in front of Parliament, even when his presence was requested.

Cele militarised the ranks of the police and established the tactical response teams. But, as far as we know, he was not involved in any real way with the finer details of the police bureaucratic machinery.

Despite the intricate system of performance measures established by the government to assess the performance of the police force, what the national commissioner actually does may be of relatively little significance. Purposeful application to moving the police force forward is something the national commissioner may choose to do, or not to do.

It may only be when they blunder in some spectacular way that they are regarded as having failed. In creating the position, the Constitution may then in some respects have created a straw man.

But it would be a mistake to say that this is all the national commissioner is. By virtue of the stature of the position in South African society, it also has important political and symbolic dimensions.

Whatever they actually do, the national commissioner clearly exercises an exceptional and unique type of power. Purely in relation to the size of the organisation they have authority over, it is a power that in South African terms is of almost god-like proportions.

The fact that we have what the National Development Plan describes as a “serial crisis of police leadership” should not surprise us then. Section 207(1) of the Constitution merely provides for this leadership figure to be appointed at the whim of the president, who is not required to apply any special rigour in selecting them.

This is frightening, given the mandate the national commissioner carries and the position of power that she occupies in South African society.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) is not the biggest police service in the world, but it is among the biggest. It is probably also the largest organisation in South Africa, with more than 193 000 personnel, of whom roughly 151 000 are police and 42 000 are administrative.

Therefore, it is an organisational and policing behemoth both nationally and by the standards of many other countries.

But all police services are not the same. Many large police organisations, particularly in countries of a more authoritarian nature, are little more than armed security guards. The SAPS aspires to a type of performance that is more complex.

In South Africa, expectations about what the police should be able to do are derived from a model of policing in terms of which police are not just official bullies. They are supposed to be providers of policing services to South Africans and to adhere to standards of conduct aligned with international human rights.

The police force then is not only very large but also, related to the diverse and relatively sophisticated role that it is supposed to perform, organisationally complex.

If the performance that is expected of the average SAPS member is somewhat more complex than that of some of their policing counterparts elsewhere, how much more then is required of the national police commissioner?

Now that things have started to unravel, Phiyega may begin to wonder where it all went wrong.

She enjoyed a period of exceptional power during which she conducted herself with a self-importance motivated by the political access that she enjoyed.

Whereas before she was the model of arrogance, now she is the victim.

Her political fortunes have changed. She seems to be the only one who has not recognised it.

David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in crime and policing.

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

David Bruce
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Energy department wastes R20.7-million in bungled solar geyser project

Of 87 206 solar geysers procured, only 61 000 were delivered, and fewer than 3 200 were installed

Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

Since the Ukraine war sent global cereal prices soaring, import-dependent Tunisia has announced a push to grow all its own durum wheat, the basis for local staples like couscous and pasta.

Democracy under serious and sustained attack from within the US

Far-right Republicans and the conservative supreme court are working on a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime

Grilling for UK leader Boris Johnson after top ministers quit

The prime minister has faced lawmakers' questions after two of the most senior figures in his government resigned. The finance and health ministers said they could no longer tolerate the culture of scandal

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…