/ 25 May 2022

We need to declare a state of emergency on policing

Saps Pass Out Parade
(Photo by Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

Bad management lies at the heart of the state of dysfunctional governance in South Africa. Nowhere are the consequences of this more evident than in the police service, where it may make a difference between life and death, not only for members of the public but for police officers themselves.  

Incompetence and corruption have devastating consequences for police members, including poor morale, illegal dismissals that threaten families’ economic survival, trauma, and deaths on duty. Francisco Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, springs to mind.   

The consequences of destructive management described here are drawn from case studies, some of which omit specific details because they are not in the public domain (for example, parliament) and identification of members would lead to further persecution.

Leaving aside the national police commissioner, who was only recently appointed (and is beholden to the minister), serious allegations are made against the most senior national management police members, some of whom have had criminal cases opened against them, and many in provincial management, especially in the Free State. These current problems are rooted in mismanagement from 2009 when all manner of irregular appointments, usually linked to politics and nepotism, became routine. 

For example, some currently serving problematic police members were appointed by suspended acting National Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane, who faces serious criminal charges. 

In the Free State and nationally, the hand of suspended ANC secretary-general and former premier Ace Magashule is much in evidence. 

During the past 12 years the police service has created new, unnecessary, departments to accommodate its ever-expanding senior ranks, which now include 200 generals and 600 brigadiers, most of whom are superfluous, and syphon off money better spent on “bobbies on the beat” (Crime Investigation Service, another serious can of worms, is not dealt with here).

Illegal dismissals amid grossly irregular appointments and promotions

There are two parallel processes feeding this gluttonous nepotism: the sideways transfer from reservists and clerical staff, with minimal training, to operational policing and the concomitant dismissal of hundreds of competent, trained, experienced members through illegal expeditious disciplinary proceedings. 

The irregular internal transfers, which are said to reward reservists related to police members as opposed to long-serving, experienced, reservists, were authorised by the head of support services (a superfluous department), Lieutenant General Francinah Vuma, in collusion with another general under investigation for serious crimes. 

Vuma was the first applicant in the Davies judgement against the police service, used to motivate for former national police commissioner Khehla Sitole’s dismissal. (His own claim of having received bad legal advice tallies with claims made about incompetence in the police service’s legal department). It is not known why no action is being taken against Vuma. 

The reasons for malicious dismissals vary, and the treatment some recount is horrifying. For example, they may experience ill-treatment by Operational Response Services (ORS) members and illegal seizure of telephones accompanied by threats of exposing any intimate photographs on phones. 

Members targeted may be instructed to have documents, including medical certificates, changed (eg substitute the trauma treatment with “depression”). Complaints, on record, about such fraud elicit no response from management.  According to statements, management has even boasted that dismissed members can continue to fight legally (knowing they have no money to do so) as the SAPS has unlimited funds at its disposal to deal with litigation.

Reasons for dismissals include

 Members may, without breaking the law, had the temerity to question why new recruits are being promoted while long standing constables and sergeants are not; 

 A member may have reported corruption, as required by law, to a senior officer who has links with those named. One of many examples is that of members who reported the cover-up of a crime committed by the father of a very senior management member. 

 A colleague, who is more than just good friends with an influential management member, may feel threatened by another’s competence and experience and want to replace him/her with a friend/relative. The malice of the colleague may even lead to fabricated charges of “disrespect” (crimen injuria) being opened, as in a current matter where alleged collusion between police and prosecutors led to a middle-aged professional police woman being kept in leg irons in court cells all day during a court appearance, on this petty charge for which there was not even a charge sheet. This by a prosecution service which claims to lack resources to prosecute serious corruption.  In our racially-charged society, it should be noted that the ill-treatment of this black, female member, was at the hands of black female police and prosecutors. 

The background to the recent arrest in court of advocate Dan Teffo, is that he is deeply unpopular with minister Bheki Cele and management, because he has won case after case of illegal dismissal of members management refuses to reinstate. Even when court orders are obtained, delaying tactics are used

One of those dismissed, without even attending an expeditious disciplinary hearing, is Patricia Mashale, a fearless Free State corruption whistleblower, who is currently in hiding, in fear of her life from colleagues (confirmed in threat analysis).  Hundreds of similarly dismissed members have turned to her for assistance, which she renders through her exceptional organisational skills and her demonstrated compassion for their suffering.  On 25 April a meeting, attended by many affected members, was held in Bloemfontein. Present were the deputy minister of police, deputy national commissioner, the executive director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) and members of Nadal (National Association Democratic Lawyers).  Government and police representatives who addressed those present, claimed lack of knowledge about what was happening. Ipid was tasked with investigating the complaints, which investigations would be overseen by members of Nadal. This excerpt from an affected member’s praise for Mashale sums up their esteem for someone who is a role model for all police, yet had to remain in hiding in fear of being killed by them :  ‘Patricia Mashale, your name is known wide and far. In every corner of South Africa you are known as the angel who are saving members of SAPS and their families from starvation and misery’.

Nowhere are the double-standards (and sheer dishonesty) of management better illustrated than in the following two cases:

1 An experienced black colonel was medically boarded without her having applied for it, after she had received death threats from a subordinate.  The subordinate was promoted to her position.  She has a wealth of experience, loved her job, and has struggled tirelessly for reinstatement. She has been thwarted by two national management members, one already dismissed by Sitole on serious fraud charges (much to the chagrin of Cele) and the other currently under investigation.  A decision by the new national commissioner is awaited.

2.A brigadier in forensic services was issued with a signed dismissal letter after a forensic report and an internal inquiry (set in motion by members who had blown the whistle on the Phahlane corruption) found her guilty of fraud in a committee dealing with applications for positions (a practice said to be widespread). The dismissal was overturned by the current head of legal services and she (the brigadier) remains in her position. A complaint has been lodged with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) over the failure to prosecute her in the prima facie criminal case opened. Questions are being asked about whether it has anything to do with her husband being employed by the NPA.

When management incompetence, arrogance and corruption lead to death

While one specific case is described, there are probably many more, as the context in which it happened is widespread. Stations and units lack sufficient members because such a huge slice of the SAPS budget is being wasted on generals, brigadiers, and frivolous and malicious legal actions, including against members.  

In this case, the commander was sent to attend a dangerous crime scene, knowing that he needed more members to deal with it.  However, he was too afraid to ask his commanding officer for more members as he knew from experience that he would not get them — and that a colleague in a similar predicament who by-passed the obdurate line manager and appealed to someone higher-up, had been threatened with dismissal.

Lacking sufficient members, but hoping for the best, the commander attended the crime scene. However, a young police officer, like a son to him, was shot and killed because the well-armed criminals had more firepower than the police.  His trauma knew no bounds when he received instructions to load the body of the deceased officer, whose death he, as commander, felt responsible for, into the mortuary van. In reporting this incident, a colleague summed up the no-win situation decent police members who risk their lives find themselves in: “Members rather let wrong actions go unaddressed, than being victimised later on … after this incident I also feel that it is time to rather leave the service.” The victimisation referred to was from the management members responsible for not ensuring sufficient members for the operation.

The buck stops with management – and with the president

If even police members lose their lives because of abysmally bad management, is it any wonder that a service which deliberately sacrifices competence on the altar of its own greed and nepotism cannot protect ordinary South Africans? What is happening to conscientious, hard-working police members is heartbreaking and no one with the power to do anything about it, including parliament and the president, seems to care about their plight. Nor do they take any steps to deal with it. 

Since the president has left a minister who is so obviously unfit for the job in his position, and parliament drags its heels on the crucial Ipid reforms ordered by the Concourt five years ago, the president cannot avoid his responsibility, as Commander-in-Chief, for the country’s safety any longer. An independent inquiry is imperative.  However, commissions are too time-consuming and costly, and confidentiality is essential if lives are to be protected.  

A possible, alternative first step could be for the president to appoint an inspecting retired judge with vast criminal experience who, with credible legal assistance, could attend to members’ reports and complaints in confidence, and make recommendations to parliament and the president about what urgent action should be taken. A failure to act endangers the security of South Africa.

*The huge body of case material drawn on was supplied by members themselves.

Mary de Haas is an advocate and an activist for political and human rights, human dignity and social justice.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.