How Poor Leadership Undermines the Work of the South African Police Service


Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria

The South African Constitution places the South African Police Service (SAPS) in the frontline against crime and obliges it ‘to protect and secure the inhabitants of the Republic and their property.’ At one level, this has been taken seriously and in the last decade the SAPS has expanded to a huge organisation of more than 194 000 people, including approximately 160 000 trained police officials and around 34 000 civilian support staff.  Its budget for 2012/13 is R62,5 billion, which represents  65,3% of the total criminal justice budget. However, in order for the police to be effective against crime, it has to ensure that the public has confidence in it. This will only occur if the SAPS leadership consists of men and women who are highly skilled professionals with the appropriate expertise and whose integrity is beyond reproach.

 The question is whether the current state of leadership in the SAPS is able to ensure that the SAPS becomes the type of professional police agency that will be respected by all people.

There can be little doubt that the many examples of senior officers being implicated in criminal activity and corruption is eroding both public trust and police morale. Furthermore, it is demonstrative of the extent to which effective leadership is lacking in the SAPS. The leadership problem starts with who is appointed as the most senior and the most powerful police officer, the National Commissioner of Police.  The previous national commissioner of the SAPS, Jackie Selebi, who had no experience in policing when he was appointed by then President Thabo Mbeki, made many poor decisions regarding the structure of the SAPS, for example closing down important specialised units. In 2010 he was convicted on a charge of corruption and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. In July 2009 Bheki Cele was appointed by President Jacob Zuma and like his predecessor, was not a career policeman, having previously served as a politician in the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government.

Cele soon gained media prominence more for his often tactless, and some may argue, irresponsible public utterances than for his police leadership qualities. In 2011 the South African Police Union (SAPU) publicly accused him of nepotism, after the appointment of close family members and friends to senior positions in the police. These allegations followed shortly after the release of the report by the Public Protector in February 2011 into alleged irregularities relating to the leasing of office accommodation for the SAPS. The Public Protector found, inter alia, that Cele’s conduct in this regard was ‘improper, unlawful and amounted to maladministration’.  In October 2011, almost eight months after the release of the report, President Zuma announced Cele’s suspension and the appointment of a Board of Inquiry to investigate, amongst others, whether he acted ‘corruptly or dishonestly or with an undeclared conflict of interest in relation to the two leases (police offices in Pretoria and Durban). The Board concluded its inquiry in the first week of April 2012 and the country now waits for its findings into whether Cele is fit to hold the position of SAPS National Commissioner.

The consequences of poor choice of leadership in the SAPS over the years are becoming abundantly clear. Allegations of ongoing irregularities relating to the business of the SAPS’ Supply Chain Management prompted President Zuma to request the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate possible corruption in the allocation of contracts handled by this division in August 2010. This investigation is not yet concluded, but since it began its work, three generals connected to Supply Chain Management took early retirement and another is currently suspended.

The Crime Intelligence Division has also for many years been fraught with allegations and reports of criminal conduct and abuse of power. For example, Mulangi Mphego, head of the division during Selebi’s term of office, was accused of various unlawful activities such as interfering with a key state witness, Glen Agliotti, during Selebi’s corruption investigation. This led to criminal charges being laid against Mphego and his subsequent resignation in 2009.

He was succeeded by the now infamous Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli, who appears to be protected at the highest level given that criminal charges of murder and corruption have been controversially withdrawn in spite of a large amount of evidence against him. Additionally, investigations into a substantial number of separate allegations of Mdluli’s involvement in corruption into misuse of the SAPS Secret Service Account have inexplicably been shut down.  

A further example of how poor leadership at the highest levels is undermining the SAPS can be found with the sudden closure of the apparently successful Cato Manor Organised Crime Unit in Durban in March 2012. Members of the Cato Manor Unit were as recently as February 2012 praised by a judge in the Pongola High Court for their professional work on the case involving the ‘KZN-26’ gang, notorious for cash-in-transit heists, robberies and murder. This followed sensational claims made by a police officer charged with corruption that the unit was operating as a ‘hit squad.’ The unit was quickly closed down without the allegations against its members being properly investigated first. Of concern was that a notice of intended suspension was served on the provincial Head of the Hawks, Major General Johan Booysen to whom they ultimately report  

The closing down of the unit and attempts at suspending Booysen must be viewed against the background of corruption and fraud charges being investigated by the Hawks against a prominent Durban businessman, Thoshan Panday. According to media reports the corruption charge followed the alleged attempt by Panday and Colonel Navin Madhoe from the SAPS KwaZulu-Natal Supply Chain Management in Durban to bribe Booysen with R2 million to assist Panday with the withdrawal of the fraud charges against him. It has been reported that KwaZulu-Natal SAPS Provincial Commissioner Monnye Ngobeni, had tried to halt the investigation into Panday. She became a subject of the Hawks investigations after it emerged that Panday had paid for her husband’s birthday celebration.  Interestingly, the NPA declined to prosecute her, alleging that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to prove that there was corruption involved in her relationship with Panday.  Furthermore, the Sunday Tribune reported a link between Edward Zuma, a son of President Zuma, and Thoshan Panday. Apparently, Edward Zuma unsuccessfully attempted to exert pressure on Booysen to release a R15 million payment that was allegedly owed to Zuma by Panday and had been frozen as part of a criminal investigation. 

Booysen successfully fought his suspension by approaching the Labour Court, which ruled that he had been unfairly suspended. However, the court order was ignored by powerful figures in the SAPS who went ahead with the suspension regardless. Booysen was then forced to approach the Labour Court a second time to have the suspension overturned once again and is back at work but facing an uncertain future.

Ongoing problems at the highest levels of the SAPS are starting to take its toll on station level police men and women. On 10 April 2012  The Star published an article titled, ‘Stress, frustration, wreck police force’, that pointed out how allegations of mismanagement at the highest levels has tarnished the image of the police and how it complicates the lives of ordinary police members. The negative impact of bad leadership on the morale of police members cannot be separated. A police service suffering from poor leadership and low morale cannot effectively perform its mandate. The situation has clearly deteriorated to the point where the credibility of police leadership at both a political and operational level have been so severely undermined that external intervention is sorely needed.  The Minister of Police who would ordinarily be responsible for addressing leadership problems, now stands accused of interfering to protect Mdluli while also irregularly benefiting from the Secret Service Account to the tune of R195 000 for renovations to his private residence and lying about it to the media.

The ISS reiterates its call for a judicial commission of inquiry with strong powers of investigation and subpoena and the necessary resources to allow it to independently and authoritatively probe the allegations of corruption, their underlying causes and then to make practical recommendations for corrective measures. It is unfair to expect the many hardworking, honest men and women in uniform to place their lives on the line when those at the helm of the organisation have lost credibility.

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