/ 22 October 2022

#CeleMustGo isn’t politicking, it’s a life-and-death matter for Western Cape residents

Bheki Cele is reportedly ready to risk his NEC job to head the eThekwini region.
Bheki Cele is reportedly ready to risk his NEC job to head the eThekwini region.

Ours is a beautiful Constitution, admired around the world. It was created by men and women who saw a bright future for the country under the leadership of moral exemplars like Nelson Mandela. This optimism is also its weakness – it hasn’t done enough to protect South Africans from bad leaders. 

It provided for a model of cooperative governance between national, provincial and local governments. It didn’t foresee how contentious relations could be between the three spheres of government when the national government empowers recalcitrant ministers who are more interested in party politics than service delivery. 

The ANC does not have a good track record when it comes to appointing competent police ministers. From the lacklustre Nathi Mthethwa to the underwhelming Fikile “Razz Matazz” Mbalula, the story is bleak. One might say that the “fire pool” era of Nathi Nhleko was the low point, but at least there was some comic relief to be had. There is nothing funny about the toxic mixture of incompetence and petulance embodied by the current police minister, Bheki Cele.

For all his bluster, the results of Cele’s leadership are clear for all to see and they are almost universally bad. From parliamentary questions posed by the Democratic Alliance (DA), we know that more than 1 700 South African Police Service (SAPS) firearms and nearly 600 000 rounds of ammunition have been stolen during Cele’s tenure. 

The minister’s department spent more than R1.5-billion on accommodation and R42.7-million on catering since March 2019, even while the number of detectives fell by more than 1 300 with more than 20% of the vehicles allocated to detectives not operational as of May 2022.

While the minister and his crew live lavishly on public funds, provincial and local governments have had to plug the gaping holes in our policing. This is especially true in the Western Cape where the DA-run provincial and City of Cape Town governments have collaborated to implement a successful sub-national safety strategy. 

That would be the end of the story – an effective policing strategy led by provincial and local governments – was it not the price the people of the Western Cape are paying for the city and the province’s added burden of doing Cele’s job.

All this local government funding has been redirected away from local service delivery while the national police spend more than a billion on accommodation and catering. What this frivolous expenditure demonstrates is a lack of urgency on the part of Cele when it comes to resourcing police on the ground, and I can understand why a minister in Pretoria doesn’t feel the agony of the victims of crime in the Cape. This is why we need to devolve policing power, a notion aggressively put forward by Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis.

The City of Cape Town currently runs a number of initiatives aimed at remedying the non-performance of the SAPS. These include the Law Enforcement Advancement Plan programme, as well as the reservists’ programme called the Law Enforcement Auxiliary Service. In the 2022-23 financial year alone the city will spend a record R5.4-billion on safety measures. This is R5.4-billion that could have been spent on social housing; expanding reliable transport services through the MyCiti bus network; social services for the homeless and the substance-addicted; on creating a world-class ecosystem for the industries of the future and creating economic opportunities for the city’s youth.

Devolving policing power brings decision-making on resource allocation closer to communities. Allocating responsibility for local policing to local government – along with proportionate funding – would fully capacitate local governments, who know best what communities need to deal with the unique challenges they face. 

This is probably why the Constitution, while placing policing in the hands of the national government, made provision for policing power to be assigned to the appropriate provincial or municipal authority. 

But our beautiful Constitution was crafted in the era of Mandela, so it didn’t anticipate the recalcitrance of Cele and of a governing ANC with a tenuous hold on power, terrified of being shown up by the opposition. 

Logically, assigning some powers to provincial and municipal governments would allow Cele to take credit as crime statistics improved while freeing him to attend to the ceremonial aspects of the job he so enjoys. But it’s not in the nature of failing leaders to prioritise the greater good or to gracefully relinquish power.

Which leaves this decision to the president. If Cele won’t go, the president must fire him. We know the president needs KwaZulu-Natal to keep his grip on the ANC and so he needs Cele. But ANC party politics are no consolation to the victims or the loved ones of those who don’t survive the particularly brutal crimes occurring throughout this country. 

We need a pragmatic minister of police who is alive to the SAPS’ shortcomings and willing to use the constitutional levers granted to them to protect South Africans in cooperation, rather than competition, with local and provincial government. We need a president to not side with his henchman, as he did recently in parliament, and be open to change, whether that means Cele being fired if it’s in the best interest of the republic. 

This is the grounds for the DA’s call for Cele to go. It’s not just politics. For many people across the country, this is literally a matter of life and death. Unless the national government devolves at least some of its policing powers, residents of the Western Cape, where the provincial and local governments spend the most to make up for the SAPS’ failures, will continue to pay the price — in some cases paying with their lives — for one man’s incompetence. 

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