The nation’s first woman police commissioner is not a career cop, but a “super administrator” who is under no illusions about the enormity of the task in front of her.
Speaking to The Star on Tuesday night, Mangwashi Victoria (Riah) Phiyega said she was humbled by the appointment to the post of top cop.
“I have my own butterflies, but this is an honour for me… I accept this with a lot of humility. I understand it’s an enormous responsibility,” she said minutes after President Jacob Zuma had announced her appointment.
Zuma ignored the opinions of opposition parties and security experts – who had pleaded for an experienced police officer to take over the reins of the service – in appointing a law-and-order novice.
The move also saw Zuma breaking his silence over the sacking of former national police commissioner Bheki Cele on the advice of a board of inquiry into his fitness to hold office, and relieving acting police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi of his duties as top cop.
Phiyega’s appointment is effective immediately. Cele is poised to challenge his dismissal, while Mkhwanazi was likely to resume his duties as head of the police’s tactical response team.
According to a close friend, Phiyega, who was born and bred in Polokwane, is a “super administrator”, and Zuma had been looking for an accomplished administrator.
“She has excelled in that regard. She is not a career cop but she is a super administrator. She has good administration skills. We already have cops, now we need a good administrator,” the friend added.
Phiyega’s appointment was received with mixed reaction.
“We are still reeling from shock. We don’t know who this person is,” said a police official who did not want to be named. He also said they were disappointed by Cele’s axing, because he was a “good cop”. He added that Cele had surrounded himself with inexperienced people who dragged him down.
The Star understands Phiyega’s appointment has shocked many people in the SAPS. Most of them said they expected the director-general of the Department of Labour, Nkosinathi Nhleko, punted as a front-runner, to take over, or a career cop.
Institute for Security Studies researcher Johan Burger said the appointment of yet another civilian to the post of top cop was likely to erode the confidence the police have in their own leadership.
“This shows that the president has no confidence in the police to lead itself,” Burger said. He added that the police service had its own style and way of operating, which a civilian would have to get used to.
Burger said that in other countries, national commissioners or equivalent ranks were drawn from within the police. “When New York mayor Rudy Giuliani went to sort out the problems within the city’s police force in the 1990s, he brought in someone from outside. This was Bill Bratton, but he was still from the police.”
The ANC Women’s League welcomed Phiyega’s appointment. “She comes to the SA police service with a glowing CV and a track record of upstanding leadership across many sectors of government as well as the private sector.
“We believe having a strong woman at the helm of the police service will bring a renewed focus to overcoming the scourge of gender-based violence, such as rape, which has become a growing concern across the country,” the league said.
The ANC also joined in welcoming Phiyega, saying her experience in the public service, her knowledge of public policy and her understanding of government would come in handy in ensuring that she rose to the challenge of her new portfolio.
The ANC’s national spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, acknowledged the role Cele played during his tenure as a policeman. “We saw a decline in crime and increased visibility of public policing.”
Politicians from across the political spectrum voiced concern that Phiyega, though widely respected as an effective administrator, lacked experience in the police service.
DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard said they welcomed Cele’s departure and “cautiously welcome” Phiyega’s appointment as a “welcome addition” to the SAPS.
“The DA remains concerned, however, that she is not a career police officer and has no experience in fighting crime. The fact that she is not a career politician is, however, a welcome departure from her predecessors, and we trust that her tenure will not be marked by similar disgraceful conduct. The DA hopes that Phiyega’s appointment will usher in a new era for the SAPS marked by stability and effective management at the top level.”
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa also welcomed Phiyega to the police fold, saying her “wealth of experience on strategic leadership and sound management” would stand her in good stead as she “steers the SAPS towards better compliance, systems integration, and effective and greater accountability”.
“Her appointment as the first black female national commissioner… in the history of our country further indicates our serious commitment to transformation of the police. We believe her appointment is well deserved, as her CV speaks volumes, and that her previous achievements in various management echelons are not coincidental, but achieved through dedication and hard work,” the minister said in a statement on Tuesday night.
Social work a strong feature
Her five priorities