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Suspended national police commissioner General Bheki Cele went to ground on Friday as calls for his head grew louder after revelations that the board of inquiry into his fitness for office had recommended his sacking.
Cele’s phone went unanswered throughout the day as opposition parties and security experts lined up to demand his dismissal – and speculation grew about a possible successor.
Labour Department director-general and former ANC chief whip Nkosinathi Nhleko is widely touted as the frontrunner to replace Cele.
However, it was not yet certain that President Jacob Zuma would fire the beleaguered police chief.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj has dismissed talk of a replacement as premature speculation and told the Saturday Star that Zuma was still “processing” the report and would “announce his response in due course”.
Cele has also indicated that he would challenge the findings in court, telling the Mail & Guardian that the report was a “crude stitch-up job”.
His spokesman, Vuyo Mkhize, said on Friday that the report was littered with factual errors, could not be taken seriously and that Cele would approach the high court to have it set aside.
The three-member board of inquiry, headed by Judge Jake Moloi, found that Cele, as the accounting officer of the police, had “grossly misconducted himself” with regard to the procurement of the Sanlam Middestad Building in Pretoria and the Transnet Building in Durban – both belonging to controversial businessman Roux Shabangu.
Shabangu told the Saturday Star on Friday that he would only comment on the report once it was officially released.
The board agreed with an earlier finding by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela that the R1.7 billion headquarters leasing deals entered into by Shabangu and former Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde had clearly been done to benefit Shabangu at the expense of taxpayers.
Madonsela’s report of July last year – following a joint investigation with the Special Investigating Unit – found that Cele’s involvement in the property deal was “improper, unlawful and amounted to maladministration”.
And while Madonsela concluded that Cele had not signed the final lease deal, he had initiated negotiations with Shabangu and seemed determined to secure these leases despite repeated warnings from his own procurement officials.
The board of inquiry found that “the national commissioner favoured the buildings owned by Shabangu and that he, together with Shabangu, pushed for the entire building in both Pretoria and Durban to be leased by the SA Police Service”. This was despite various needs assessments indicating that “a lesser amount of lettable space” would suffice.
“The insistence of the national commissioner on his innocence in this regard demonstrates palpably that he fails to appreciate the nature and importance of the responsibilities attached to his position and thus the board concludes that he lacks capacity and is thus incapable of executing his official duties efficiently.
“The findings relating to both misconduct and lack of capacity to execute official duties efficiently… singularly and cumulatively illustrate that the national commissioner is not fit for office,” was the board’s unanimous verdict.
Meanwhile, opposition parties have called for Cele’s head on a platter. The DA stated on Friday that, since his appointment by Zuma in 2009, the party had questioned the commissioner’s “independence and impartiality, track-record, ethical conduct, and his skills and experience”.
The IFP and Cope also called for Cele’s head to roll.
African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart welcomed the report, saying it appeared Cele “was very much involved in the police leasing scandal – inasmuch as he adjusted the specs to suit the Roux Shabangu buildings, and with whom Cele appears to have had a prior relationship”.
Swart called for a review of how police commissioners were appointed.
Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies warned that political appointments to the job were the reason the SAPS was incapable of tackling high-level corruption.
Newham said there should have been a criminal investigation examining witness testimony, phone records and financial transactions to get to the bottom of the matter and such a probe should have been extended to include Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Shabangu.
This view was supported by the board itself.
Newham added: “Once again we have a president who either doesn’t know how – or refuses – to fix the serious problems (in the police) and take the actions required to fix the crisis facing the criminal justice system.”