Wrecking police morale and public trust since 2012


In his book Leading Quietly, Harvard professor Joseph L Badarocco says: ‘There can be no great leadership … without a deep substantive knowledge of the technological and bureaucratic characteristics of the specific setting in which leadership is expected.’

This may seem like an obvious statement, but it is pertinent given that the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police refused to approve the R79 billion budget last week, which has a lot to do with the profound crises of top management facing the South African Police Service (SAPS).

For most of the past decade, the individuals appointed to the most senior and powerful posts in the SAPS, a 198 000-strong police agency, have had no policing experience.

Another challenge that continues to loom large has been the general lack of integrity among SAPS national commissioners. The previous commissioner, Bheki Cele, was fired after a board of inquiry found him unfit for the position, partly due to unlawful conduct. Jackie Selebi, the commissioner before him, was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment.

There were many other examples of dishonesty, evasiveness and poor decision-making

In welcoming Riah Phiyega as the new national commissioner in 2012, Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, assured the South African public that Phiyega ‘brings a wealth of experience on strategic leadership and sound management.’ Indeed, apart from a lack of policing or direct public sector management experience, her résumé is impressive.

In her maiden press conference as national commissioner on 14 June 2012, Phiyega said that she subscribes to ‘the school of thought in support of “ISE,” meaning “integrity, service … and excellence.”’ However, her conduct in close to three years in office has been anything but in line with these principles.

Following the announcement of Phiyega’s appointment, the Institute for Security Studies questioned the sensibility of again appointing a civilian to this position, given that there are many highly experienced police officers who are arguably far better qualified. In this regard, it is useful to look at the individual characteristics of effective police leadership as identified in a study by Mitch Pearson-Goff and Victoria Herrington. In an analysis of 57 empirical articles published internationally, the study, titled Police leaders and leadership development: a systematic literature review identified seven characteristics of a good police leader. Three of these relate to the integrity of a police leader, namely that she or he must be ethical, trustworthy and legitimate.

Only persons with expert knowledge should be appointed to senior policing positions

The study found that being ethical was stressed as an important quality throughout the literature, and was generally defined as ‘exhibiting a sense of integrity and honesty, and being able to demonstrate and generate a sense of trustworthiness amongst one’s subordinates.’

On the issue of legitimacy, the study concluded that police leaders need to be seen as legitimate not only by the public, but also internally; that is, by other police officers. This is most frequently described as ‘the need for leaders to be seen as good coppers.’

Phiyega’s testimony before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry remains the most damning of many instances of alleged dishonesty and incompetence as police commissioner. The Marikana Commission was created to probe the deaths and injuries that took place at Marikana during August 2012, when in approximately 30 minutes, police officers shot 112 striking mineworkers, killing 34 of them. An additional 10 people lost their lives in the run-up to this tragic event.

In their heads of argument to the Commission, dated 27 October 2014, the independent advocates who had acted as the evidence leaders summed up their assessment of Phiyega’s testimony as follows: ‘Her own evidence in relation to the meeting of 15 August 2012 was not candid. She also gave false evidence to the Commission … Her evidence before the Commission was generally characterised by a lack of candour … Her immediate response to the shootings [of 16 August 2012] was incompatible with the office of the head of a police service in a constitutional state.’

This will have to start with a transparent process of appointing the national commissioner

This was a foreseeable outcome considering that four days after the massacre and before an independent investigation had been completed, Phiyega defined what had happened as ‘the best of responsible policing.’ Later, under cross-examination, and despite having seen video footage of police officers opening fire on miners, she testified under oath that ‘I cannot say those 34 people were killed by the police.’

There were many other examples of dishonesty, evasiveness and poor decision-making on her part in the massacre. Consequently, the evidence leaders have recommended that a board of inquiry be appointed to consider her fitness to hold the office of national commissioner, as per section 8(1) of the SAPS Act. They further recommend that ‘only persons with expert knowledge should be appointed to senior policing positions in which they may have any role at all in operational decisions.’

Indeed, dishonesty appears to have been an ongoing problem with Phiyega, even while giving evidence under oath. Following the disciplinary hearing of Johan Booysen, Provincial Head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal, on a charge of misconduct, similar concerns about Phiyega were noted by Advocate Nazeer Cassim, who chaired the inquiry. In his report, Cassim noted: ‘Her evidence was evasive and unsatisfactory in material respects … She was sadly unable to deal with the state of play of senior officers … other than to say that the concerns regarding them will be dealt with “in due course” … I find this wholly unsatisfactory and [it] supports, if not augments, the contention that the charges against Booysen were contrived to get rid of him.’

Phiyega’s lack of integrity has been destructive both in terms of police officer morale and public trust in the SAPS. South Africans can only hope that the president will not delay any longer in implementing the recommendations of the National Development Plan with regards to professionalising the police.

This will have to start with a transparent and competitive process of appointing the national commissioner and deputy national commissioners of the SAPS so that the best possible man or woman, whose integrity is beyond reproach, can take the reins of this important crime-fighting institution.

Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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