SAPS operates as a self-protecting arm of the ruling party

Posted 06 July 2015 Written by Gareth van Onselen
Category Corruption

The South African Police Service, like its master the ANC, has become adept at protecting its own in the face of serious accusations of criminality, fraud and nepotism. To this extent, it is behaving like the ruling political party, writes Gareth van Onselen in Business Day.

The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF), named after the late Helen Suzman — one of the doyens of liberalism in SA — is a nongovernmental organisation that, according to its website, exists to "promote liberal constitutional democracy through broadening public debate and research".

Its director is Francis Antonie and, under him, the HSF has broadened its advocacy to the courts, where it is currently pursuing a number of important matters. It has just under 7,000 followers on Twitter.

Citation: The article the HSF alludes to concerns Felicia Ntshangase, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate head in Gauteng, who after just six months in office is being investigated for possible nepotism.

The police and its leadership are front and centre, as the report of the commission of inquiry into the Marikana tragedy found, among other things, that a review should be undertaken into the competence of national police commissioner Riah Phiyega.

But it doesn’t stop there and the HSF is perfectly right to suggest a trend. It has been a rough past few years for the South African Police Services (SAPS) and, when it comes to corruption and maladministration, there is much evidence to suggest its reputation as the bastion of law and order has been seriously damaged.

Other incidents include:

  • Former commissioner Bheki Cele was replaced, without much explanation from the president aside from reference to a board of inquiry finding on his role in the awarding of two irregular leases. The board found "Gen Cele to be unfit for office and has recommended his removal from office", to quote the president.
  • The appointment of Lt-Gen Bethuel Mondli Zuma as the new Gauteng provincial commissioner had to be withdrawn hours later after it was reported there existed a criminal investigation against him.
  • The on-again, off-again charges against the former divisional commissioner of the police’s Crime Intelligence Division, Richard Mduli, for the alleged murder of Oupa Ramogibe in 1999, continues with no discernible end in sight.

Much has been written about the conduct of the police on the ground. Police brutality continues to raise its ugly head, while ordinary police men and women regularly appear in the papers for involvement in crime (most recently 15 were arrested in the Eastern Cape on charges of fraud and corruption), and the way in which the services are used — from Parliament to VIP protection — have all worked to reinforce the general perception that the police services are not only badly managed but, often, managed with ill-intent.

What makes this selection of examples different is that they involve some of the most senior managerial positions in the service. Unethical behaviour is one thing but the nature of many of these alleged transgressions — nepotism, fraud and incompetence — has a particular political ring to it. These are usually the kinds of transgressions you find in the political universe. In a properly functioning public service, one independent from political influence, people are usually fired for performance-related issues (targets not met, mandates not fulfilled, poor leadership or financial management and so on). Yet, on that front, there is precious little on show.

Of course the police are not singular in that regard; performance-related accountability is amiss through the public service. But traditionally even the ANC government has had an unofficial way of dealing with that kind of problem — by simply redeploying someone elsewhere. The police services, however, represent something of a conundrum on that front. It requires a very particular set of skills and training, often not transferable, even at senior management level. And if you aren’t willing or able to fire people for poor performance, inevitably, at some point or another, they arrive at the top of the food chain. The same applies, to a large degree, to the defence force.

The police service, then, appears to be operating much like a compromised political party, certainly like the ANC: a close-knitted, self-selecting universe were the compromised and unethical are protected and rewarded as they make their way through the ranks, not on the back of their performance but by other considerations, which have little to do with merit.

In 2013 the SAPS revealed 1,448 serving police officers were convicted criminals. As disturbing as that revelation was, they included, to quote Africa Check, "a major-general, 10 brigadiers, 21 colonels, 10 majors, 43 lieutenant-colonels, 163 captains, 84 lieutenants and 716 warrant officers".

Many of these people made their way through the ranks systematically and, on each occasion, successfully navigated a review of their career.

Other traits particular to political parties in decline and evident in the SAPS: a disconnect with its constituency (the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer 2013 found about 83% of South Africans believed that police were corrupt); a war with the courts (by 2013, claims against the police represented a contingent liability of about R15bn); an embrace of secrecy and elitism (perhaps exemplified by the VIP protection services) and a hostility to the media (we regularly read reports now of police confiscating material and abusing journalists).

Phiyega and Cele were political appointments brought in from the outside but, once inside the SAPS inner circle, they seem to have taken to it like fish to water.

And, taking the lead from their political minders in Pretoria, they have gone out of their way to defend the police service as a managerial model of excellence, despite a slew of evidence to the contrary. Their defences are not evidence-based either. When Phiyega dismissed a recent South African Race Relations survey (a compilation of nothing more than media stories), she was entirely ad hominem, saying it was drawn up with "malicious intent".

Of course there is also the myth making, as with former commissioner Jackie Selebi. Despite being convicted of corruption, Phiyega said at his funeral: "He laid deep foundations and those foundations will help us continue to take this service forward." Where have we seen that before?

It’s a vicious cycle, of course. Once an organisation has abandoned merit and the unofficial criteria for success are determined by a skills deficit and institutional loyalty, excellence is effectively excluded from its internal culture.

It is an interesting idea to pursue — the extent to which the police services operate more like a political party than a professional organisation; to look at its informal values and how they manifest.

When parties implode, as the ANC is, they tend to abuse resources to protect themselves, and to become a force answerable only to itself. The ANC has, for decades now, politicised the public service. It is only natural then, for the public service, and the institutions that comprise it, to start to behave like political parties themselves — and who better to model oneself on than your maker.


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