President Cyril Ramaphosa has terminated national police commissioner general Khehla Sitole’s employment by mutual agreement with effect from 31 March.
A statement released by the presidency on Friday afternoon said Ramaphosa and Sitole agreed that the early termination of the commissioner’s contract is in the best interests of the country. Sitole joins a long list of national police commissioners who have failed to finish a term in office since the dawn of democracy.
Last year, Ramaphosa sent Sitole a letter calling on him to give reasons why he should not be suspended in connection with allegations of failing to assist the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
Sitole has also been at loggerheads with Police Minister Bheki Cele, one of Ramaphosa’s most loyal lieutenants in the governing ANC. Tensions between the two were heightened during last July’s unrest, which resulted in more than 300 people killed during mass looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Recent public spats between Sitole and Cele were highlighted by journalists during an engagement with the president shortly after Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address, when he assured South Africa that he was “dealing with it”.
On Friday, the presidency said the month before Sitole’s departure would enable a proper handover of various tasks, including all ongoing investigations, to one of the senior members of the team at the South African Police Service (SAPS) that had been assisting him. This means that the highly politicised office will once again run without a leader.
An announcement will be made in due course on filling the position, the presidency added.
While testifying in December at the South African Human Rights Commission inquiry into the July unrest, Cele painted a telling picture of a strained relationship between the police top brass. Cele tore into Sitole for being “missing in action” and “nowhere to be seen” during the unrest, accusing him of lacking in leadership and adding to the police’s challenges in grappling with the violence.
According to the minister, had there been better leadership from Sitole, then police in KwaZulu-Natal would not have been caught unawares by the magnitude of the violence.
The root of the tension between the men lies in allegations that Sitole accused Cele of interfering in the restructuring of the police service.
Sitole has, on several occasions, defended himself from accusations made by Cele. Responding to criticism of the police’s inaction during the unrest, he said all crime intelligence provincial structures were tasked with determining whether any threats could be identified. Crime intelligence was requested to ensure that existing source networks were focused on gathering information to identify any threats associated with mobilisation in support of the former president, he said.
In comments included in Friday’s statement, Ramaphosa said he was grateful to Sitole for “the constructive discussions we have had over the termination of his position as national commissioner”.
“I wish to convey my appreciation to General Sitole for his service to the nation over many years in the SAPS. I wish him the best in his future endeavours,” Ramaphosa added.