/ 31 March 2022

How Masemola became police commissioner

South African Minister Cele Briefs The Media On Matters Related To Phoenix Violence
President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced Lieutenant General Sehlahle Fannie Masemola as the new police commissioner. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced Lieutenant General Sehlahle Fannie Masemola as the new police commissioner. 

Masemola’s appointment as the country’s top cop comes amid allegations of meddling levelled against Police Minister Bheki Cele and criticisms of the “secretive recruitment process” for outgoing national police commissioner Khehla Sitole’s replacement. 

His appointment may come as a surprise to insiders, who touted KwaZulu-Natal provincial police commissioner Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, who enjoys a good relationship with Cele, as the frontrunner by some distance.

Masemola, Ramaphosa said, has “an outstanding record of achievements in policing across South Africa”. Masemola served as the deputy national commissioner responsible for policing. 

His experience includes playing a leading role in co-ordinating security for all elections since and including the first democratic ballot, the president noted. Masemola also helped to drastically reduce cash-in-transit crimes.

“The weight of the nation’s expectations resting on the commissioner’s shoulders will be matched only by the weight of the support government will place at the disposal of our new national commissioner of police,” Ramaphosa said.

“A stable, capable and capacitated South African Police Service is our surest guarantee that our constitutional rights will not be violated by criminals.”

On the selection process, Ramaphosa said the panel — chaired by former minister of safety and security Sydney Mufamadi — “was guided in part by the decisive role the police service has in respect of nation building, and the ongoing national efforts to strengthen democracy and to entrench the rule of law”.

The Mail & Guardian has learnt that one of the candidates for the top position, Lieutenant General Johannes Riet, head of the South African Police Service (SAPS) supply-chain management, was called for an interview on 28 March, but was subsequently informed that his application was unsuccessful without having been interviewed for the post.  

The M&G has had sight of internal notes from the presidency showing that Riet was scheduled for an interview at 2pm on Monday in the west wing of the Union Buildings in Tshwane, which house President Cyril Ramaphosa’s offices.

Two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, as well as an internal presidency note seen by the M&G, confirmed that General Riet was rejected as a candidate before he even sat down for an interview. 

Riet declined to comment when contacted, only saying: “I would advise you to refer your media enquiry to the office of the state president and/or the minister of police.” 

According to well-placed sources, Cele and Riet, who is known as an ally of Sitole, have an acrimonious relationship stemming from the long-running feud between the former top cop and the police minister. 

The bitter relationship among the country’s police top brass was evidenced when Cele, in a stinging letter to Sitole dated 9 June 2021 which the M&G has seen, chastised the “repulsive and threatening” comments Riet allegedly made to the police’s chief audit executive, Major General DT Nkosi. 

Cele, in the letter, also took issue with Sitole’s plans to move Nkosi away from the auditing office as part of the police’s restructuring process. 

Cele said the “repulsive” comments were made the day before the minister wrote his note to Sitole, during a meeting of the police’s top brass to discuss R1.6-billion that the police service allegedly squandered on Covid-19-related procurement from March 2020 to June last year. 

“I expect the national commissioner to intervene and address the intimidating and threatening behaviour of Lieutenant General Riet. In hindsight, the motive behind the transfer [or] placement of Major General Nkosi, under the auspices of the restructuring of the SAPS, is also questionable and it is clear that the restructuring process is being used as a punitive measure to neutralise certain individuals and not in the interest of the service,” Cele wrote.

Cele’s spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, said the ministry would not comment on the allegations surrounding the national police commissioner appointment process. 

Tyrone Seale, the spokesperson for the presidency, acknowledged receipt of the M&G’s questions on the matter, and indicated that he would respond. He had, however, not responded by the time of publication. 

The other candidates

Among the candidates who are understood to have been shortlisted from the initial pool, alongside Masemola, were Lieutenant General Elias Mawela, the current Gauteng commissioner, and Lieutenant General Liziwe Ntshinga, the deputy national commissioner for crime detection.

Retired former deputy national commissioner Lieutenant General Gary Kruser is also believed to be among those invited for an interview.

But it was Mkhwanazi who looked set to take the top job. This is despite his role in the failure of the police to bring the unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal last July under control for nearly a week.

Mkhwanazi is a former police task force head who was appointed as acting national commissioner between 2011 and 2012. In 2019 he was selected to head the operational response division, but was moved to his home province of KwaZulu-Natal in February 2021 to take over as provincial commissioner.

During the hearings into the violence which swept the province in July after the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, Mkhwanazi defended both himself and those under his command, who he said had been overwhelmed by the sheer force of numbers of rioters and looters.

Mkhwanazi also dismissed claims by then-defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula that he had been “uncooperative” with the military when it arrived in the province after the looting began.

Police unions are concerned about both the claims of “interference” in operational matters by Cele, and the management structure Masemola will inherit from Sitole. Unions have also railed against the “secretive recruitment process” for Sitole’s successor, where the shortlisted candidates were interviewed in private, unlike the process to appoint the new National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) head in 2018-19, as well as the new chief justice this year.  

Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) spokesperson Richard Mamabolo said the group believed that unless the current conditions within the police top management changed, whoever was appointed was “being set up for failure.”

“The process is not in our hands, but our advice to the president would be that before taking the decision to appoint a commissioner, he would need to look into some of the challenges faced by the previous commissioners,” Mamabolo said.

“There would definitely need to be some form of change taking effect if whoever is appointed is to be successful. No matter how good the person is, working under similar conditions, at that level, they would be set up for failure.”

He said Popcru believed the recruitment process would require improved vetting to ensure the incoming commissioner did not “face allegations” like their predecessors, all of whom, since General George Fivaz, had been troubled by allegations of impropriety.

(John McCann/M&G)

“We don’t really care whether the president appoints a career officer or not. What matters is that they are competent and thoroughly vetted and are going to take up the aims and objectives of the SAPS,” said Mamabolo.

The new commissioner needed to be more “hands on” than Sitole to avoid facing the same challenges in an environment where “there have been complaints about the fact that the minister interferes too much in the work of the commissioner.”

Sitole’s five-year plan as commissioner had failed, in part, because he was unable to provide the kind of strategic leadership the post required.

“In all the targets that were set, two years in we could see that we were not going anywhere,” Mamabolo said. 

The new commissioner will face the same challenges as Sitole when it comes to the budgetary constraints with which the police service has grappled.

Tumi Mogodiseng, the South African Policing Union’s (Sapu) general secretary, said his organisation was disappointed that Ramaphosa did not follow the same public recruitment process that appointed Shamila Batohi as the national director of public prosecutions (the NPA head) in 2018, saying the country was deprived of an opportunity to vet its new top cop. 

“Ideally, Sapu would have preferred a woman to succeed Sitole, but we understand it’s the president’s prerogative to appoint a national commissioner,” Mogodiseng said.

“We hope that whoever is appointed does not fall victim to Minister Cele’s political interference as was the case against Sitole.”