Fixing SAPS should start with Phiyega, but can't end there

2015-07-06

The disastrous reign of South African Police Service (SAPS) National Commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, will hopefully come to an end very soon.

It is highly likely that the board of inquiry into her fitness to hold office will end in a recommendation that she be dismissed. However, if the SAPS is to become a well-respected and trusted organisation, known for its professionalism and effectiveness in tackling crime, it will take much more than simply appointing another National Commissioner. Rather, the entire senior management echelon will need to be revitalised to consist only of individuals with appropriate skills and expertise, along with impeccable integrity.

The Marikana Commission found that Phiyega had failed in her duties as SAPS National Commissioner in two important respects. Firstly, she was party to the decision to implement an operational plan in which bloodshed was foreseeable. This stood in stark contrast to her legal and moral duty to ensure that policing operations avoided the loss of life or injury. The outcome of this fundamental failure was that 112 people were shot, resulting in 34 deaths. The shootings were unnecessary and unjustifiable, as the commission could not find that the police were under attack.

Secondly, all police officials sign a code of conduct that emphasises the importance of integrity. As a senior police officer, Phiyega had a formal duty to engage with the commission honestly so that the truth could be established. The commission found significant failings on this score. Phiyega not only misled the people of South Africa through her first public statement after the massacre, she was furthermore party to withholding vital evidence, presenting false and misleading evidence before the commission, and giving untruthful testimony under oath.

Phiyega has protected various senior officers who are facing serious criminal charges

Phiyega’s continuation as SAPS National Commissioner is therefore untenable, and she should be suspended as soon as possible. This not only because of the commission’s findings against her, but also because further investigations have been recommended. These could lead to possible criminal prosecutions against a number of police officers under her command. Given what we now know about Phiyega, it cannot be ruled out that she might use her authority to resist or undermine efforts to hold these officers accountable.

Furthermore, we should expect to see the suspensions of all those police officers referred to in the Commission’s report pending the finalisation of criminal and disciplinary steps against them. These steps are important, not only to satisfy the public and victims’ need to see justice done, but also to start the long and difficult process of rebuilding the credibility of the SAPS.

For the past three years, the SAPS has been led by a national commissioner who not only shirked her legal and moral obligations, but is patently dishonest and of low moral character. The consequence has been that professional and honest police officers have been forced out of the organisation. Last year, Phiyega unilaterally and irregularly forced out two well-respected deputy national commissioners, Lieutenant-Generals Godfrey Lebeya and Leah Mofomme for no clear reasons other than perhaps feeling threatened by them. Lebeya and Mofomme have more than 60 years of policing experience between them.

We cannot accept a situation where the president parachutes in a loyal comrade to head the SAPS

On the other hand, Phiyega has protected and supported various senior officers who are facing serious criminal charges, or who are known to be unethical. For example, she continues to protect current head of SAPS Crime Intelligence Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli, who is appearing in court on charges ranging from murder to corruption. She also tried to assist Western Cape Provincial Commissioner Arno Lamoer by warning him of a corruption investigation against him. She then victimised the brave intelligence officers who appropriately reported her attempts to undermine their investigations. Lamoer and three other senior police officers are currently facing more than 100 charges of corruption and racketeering.

It is therefore unsurprising that the SAPS has deteriorated notably under her command. Crime intelligence is in a crisis due to her protection of Mdluli and is operating at a substantially reduced level of productivity. Experienced police officers are leaving in droves at well over twice the rate than when she took over. Last year, 1 100 detectives left the SAPS, a crucial resource that the police can ill afford to lose. Police brutality and corruption remain significant challenges, contributing to the 137% increase in civil claims against the police that have been paid out since her appointment.

As a result of these failures, crimes that the police were able to tackle in the past are now spiralling out of control. Since her appointment, there are at least 50 more armed robberies every day on average. These violent attacks are contributing four additional murders taking place every day on average, compared to 2012.

To be fair on Phiyega, it is not all her fault. She has at her disposal around two dozen lieutenant generals and about 50 major generals who should be providing her with sound advice to improve policing and develop clear strategies to reduce the crimes mentioned above. She is clearly not capable of providing them with guidance, as she has no policing experience herself. While many of these commanders are highly skilled and have solid expertise, she is probably receiving much bad and contradictory advice from a number of her senior commanders.

This would at least mean that the Marikana massacre contributed to something positive

This is because for much of the past decade or more, too many senior appointments have been made for reasons that have nothing to do with policing experience or integrity. Disgraced former SAPS Commissioner Jackie Selebi, for example, appointed a political cadre whom the Public Service Commission had found to be guilty of serious misconduct and maladministration to head the SAPS National Inspectorate. This structure is vital for internal accountability, but collapsed under his mismanagement.

We cannot accept a situation where the president parachutes a loyal comrade to head the SAPS. Such an appointee will make mistakes, and when the police make mistakes people die or are injured. Fortunately for Zuma, he can start the process of fixing the SAPS simply by implementing the recommendations of the National Development Plan (NDP) as they pertain to policing.

The NDP calls for the SAPS national commissioner and deputy national commissioners to be appointed after a comprehensive review by an independent panel, and following a transparent and competitive recruitment process. Moreover, the NDP recommends that a multi-disciplinary National Policing Board consisting of various expertise and skills should be established to independently assess the appointment processes, abilities and expertise of all senior officers. Those who do not possess the necessary skills, expertise or integrity should be replaced by others who are able to fulfil the requirements.

Only a solid senior management team of highly experienced and honest police officers will be able to develop and implement strategies that will reduce police misconduct and improve their performance in reducing crime. Let’s hope that the president implements his government’s own plan so that the many honest and skilled officers working under difficult conditions can start to rebuild the credibility of the SAPS. This would at least mean that the Marikana massacre contributed to something positive, given the massive trauma and pain it has inflicted on its victims and on the psyche of South Africa.

Gareth Newham, Head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division, Pretoria

This article was first published by The Sunday Independent.

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