President Cyril Ramaphosa is considering at least five candidates for the next national police commissioner who will succeed General Khehla Sitole.
One fact to highlight is that Sitole becomes the latest national commissioner to be replaced under a cloud prior to completing his term. This has become a pattern with national commissioners ever since the appointment of Jackie Selebi in 2009.
The second fact to consider is that, since Selebi, successive national commissioners have been embroiled in criminal activities (including corruption), political controversy or conflict in the higher echelons of the South African Police Service.
What have been the consequences of this?
There can be little doubt that the troubles in the highest structures of the police service, which have been going on for decades, have had a negative effect on crime prevention, safety and security in the country. Law enforcement cannot function adequately if its leadership structures are dysfunctional. The constant drama in the upper echelons of police service, which includes the office of the national commissioner, do not inspire South Africans with much confidence in the ability of the police to combat crime and keep them safe.
Several recent events have exposed the harms caused by the problems in the leadership in police service. Perhaps the most telling were the riots of July 2021. Just prior to the outbreak of the violence, Sitole had unsuccessfully attempted to overturn a high court decision that found he and his deputies were politically compromised. Then the riots occurred and South Africans watched in horror the apparent inability of the police service to restore law and order. It could well be argued that one of the reasons for the poor response by the police service was that the national commissioner and his deputies were distracted by their legal and political problems, instead of focusing on their key responsibility, which is to show leadership and direct the response of the police service at a national level.
Why is it critically important to appoint the right person for the position of national police commissioner? I can suggest three important reasons.
First, until now, the interference of politics in the affairs and activities of the police service has weakened it. The controversies surrounding Sitole, and the cloud under which he vacates the office, make it imperative that his successor must be the right person for the job, and not be appointed because of any other reason than they can do the job.
Second, we should not forget that many of the current problems in the police service were inherited. We all know the role of the South African Police in enforcing the whims of the apartheid state, and the damage this did to its reputation as the protector of the people. For many, this perception of the post-1994 police service has not improved, especially if we consider incidents such as the Marikana killings in 2012, the death of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg in 2011 and the death of Mthokozisi Ntumba during the Wits student protests in 2021.
The next national police commissioner has the task of leading the police service in a direction that clearly seeks to distinguish it from its past. The examples mentioned above would suggest that no post-1994 police service commissioner has succeeded in this.
Third is that the wider context of the global threat of terror and its effect on South Africa, as well as the local context of crime, make it imperative that the right person be appointed to the position. What is the message that is sent to the international community and to South Africans when a national police commissioner is either involved in crime himself, or is too distracted by political in-fighting to focus on his responsibilities? Unfortunately, the only message that is heard is that South Africa is open for business for terrorism and criminality. What are the consequences of this? Higher crime levels and increasing terror threats have a negative effect on investor confidence, and the citizenry feels unsafe.
We hope that those responsible for appointing the next national police commissioner will apply sound judgement, and truly have the interests of the citizens and the country at heart. If they don’t, we can look forward to more soap operas in the police leadership. But rather than be entertained by them, we will have to deal with the consequences.