Security through policing is far too important to be left to politicians, writes Mary de Haas.
WITH fresh memories of police inaction during the July violence and looting, the possible suspension of National SAPS Commissioner Khehla Sitole raises further concerns about election-related security issues.
If the suspension goes ahead, it will be unlikely to impact on imminent elections, but the longer-term consequences are potentially serious.
Sitole’s appointment has seen a perceptible improvement in accountability, with many police charged with serious fraud, and some dismissed. The politicisation of policing, which escalated after Jacob Zuma became president, lies at the heart of the problems, with grossly irregular interference in operational matters by the minister of police dividing loyalties and hampering the fight against crime.
The public has little control over the elected executive, but, with greater participation in policing issues, it could play an important role in exposing incompetence, corruption and criminality in local-level policing.
Minister Bheki Cele is to blame for the leadership crisis, as he wants Sitole, who is an impediment to his exercising total control over policing, removed. The pretext is a flimsy one, resting on a judgment in a 2018 court case delivered almost three years after its inception, relating to the failure of the SAPS to hand over classified procurement documentation to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) (which had problems of its own).
Sitole was one of the four applicants, one of whom – the kingpin in this matter – was Bo Mbindwane, the adviser/representative of former police minister Fikile Mbalula. One of the procurements happened almost a year before Sitole’s November 2017 appointment; the second was the attempted procurement of a “grabber” (electronic interception spyware) just after his appointment.
The judge found in favour of Ipid, but said Sitole’s role might have been confined to classifying documents. Why Sitole would have classified documents from a year before his appointment is not interrogated.
Sitole was exonerated by Inspector-General of Intelligence Setlhomamaru Dintwe, whose office had done its own investigation. In his evidence to the Zondo Commission, Dintwe is categorical in blaming Mbindwane (acting for the then police minister) for the grabber procurement, and stresses that Sitole had never signed for it, and had immediately stopped payment when he discovered it was going ahead. The documents had been declassified, and investigations of malfeasance were under way.
Commissioner Sitole, a professional policeman, inherited a shocking mess, the product of years of political interference and rampant, unchecked corruption.
During the Cele and Riah Phiyega commissioner years, there had been a host of irregular appointments, including of non-police members, many of them to senior positions. This created a top-heavy, largely incompetent management, at the expense of engaging sufficient foot soldiers at lower ranks. Labour laws inhibit the removal of dead wood. Experienced police members decry the deterioration of training standards, including for detectives, and the lack of discipline because of poor management.
The long-standing problem of brutality was given free rein during Cele’s tenure. Bad Operational Response Services management created serious problems for the policing of protests, and protection of vulnerable communities, as evidenced during the July disturbances when even water cannon were dysfunctional.
Cele and the deputy acting provincial commissioner (who was on leave) bear responsibility for the failure to respond timeously in July by arranging deployment of soldiers when roadblocking started. At some stations, police did their best, at others they allowed the rampaging mobs a free hand. Umlazi’s Bhekithemba SAPS station was trashed, and it is virtually certain that guns and ammunition were stolen – which is unheard of. All the equipment should be secured in a safe or strongroom, to which only the station commissioner has the key.
During the disturbances it became apparent that a significant percentage of police members owe their loyalty to Zuma, and some even intimidated their colleagues trying their best to respond.
Given the shocking lack of discipline and loyalty, the slow progress by the national commissioner is understandable. That police members dealing with political violence cases, and crime intelligence, are reporting directly to Cele is in breach of the SAPS Act and has a serious impact on the fight against violent crime. Appointments to ministerial positions depend on politics, not on probity or capability, and Cele seems to call the presidential shots. If he succeeds in removing Sitole during an inquiry, he will have no one to block his dangerous meddling.
It is crucial that non-political community members of standing engage with policing at their stations, through joining CPFs, or assisting with patrols or reservist activities.
Independent monitoring, and documenting with factual information, local level policing is important, as is providing a support system for members striving to do their best. A broader-based network could assist local groups when there are overwhelming problems as, for example, following up serious cases such as murder. Security through policing is far too important to be left to politicians.
* Mary de Haas, is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Law, and a member of the Navi Pillay Research Group focusing on justice and human rights.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA and Independent Media.