Tell us about your favourites and win
Perhaps the position of national police commissioner is cursed. Anyone taking up that post ends in disappointment, says Makhudu Sefara.
Johannesburg - A disclaimer before my musings: I really like police commissioner Riah Phiyega. There, I said it. It feels I should even be referring to her as Ous Riah – as a show of my respect.
I also liked Bheki Cele – though he thought I hated him. When I edited The Sunday Independent, we ran a number of stories about his mismanagement of the police force and, for some reason, he took this as a firm enough basis to believe it was a campaign motivated by hatred. Skepsel.
In truth, though, I found him a hugely likable commissioner. It was for me the passion he displayed. His avant garde nature. And also how he spoke, not necessarily what he said. His call to action – “Stomach in, chest out” – came out of a good place in his heart, I believed.
But he disappointed me.
So did Jackie Selebi, who I also liked. Selebi was, for me, the quintessential struggle hero who, bar his arrogance, was worthy of praise for a good life; a dedication to the emancipation of oppressed South Africans; a hero who should have been one to the end of his days. The reason I wrote the way I did about Selebi on his conviction was out of disappointment. I thought: Even you? Of all people?
I felt despondent that an increasing number of people who fought for freedom betrayed the memories of those who were unfortunate not to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of liberation.
I felt Selebi, too, had fed into the stereotype that former freedom fighters are just as corrupt as apartheid rulers. The disappointment was painful. A big letdown.
And now Phiyega.
How could I not have realised that there was a curse? Anyone taking up that post ends in disappointment.
I am a believer, I suppose. Perhaps not just that. Ludwig Wittgenstein observed that nothing is as difficult as not deceiving oneself. I suppose I have a particular liking for people who tend eventually to disappoint me. Well, I don’t mean this generally, I must point out, for I might have no place to call home tonight!
When Ous Riah was appointed, many, like Justice Malala, complained that she had no policing background and thus would fail. Others said the SAPS needed a career cop. Many just didn’t give her a chance.
The congenital optimist in me disagreed. I believed that to run the SAPS you didn’t need to be an expert in policing – you needed to work with committed experts.
The only other thing you needed was to be a knowledgeable, hard-working and innovative manager.
Even at business schools, according to Josh Kaufman in The Personal MBA, we are told that we don’t need to know everything about our work.
“Once you have a solid scaffold of core principles to work from, building upon your knowledge and making progress becomes much easier.”
With those words, in my heart of hearts, I believed Phiyega would be a much-needed improvement on Selebi and Cele.
But everything came crashing down with the report that she allegedly tipped off the subject of an investigation about the existence of the investigation. That there was a parliamentary question – the answer to which needed her to have a discussion with Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer – is not the issue. The content of the discussion is troubling.
The question uppermost in my mind is why Phiyega found it necessary to relay to Lamoer what she had told Acting Divisional Commissioner for Crime Intelligence Chris Ngcobo and Hawks head Anwa Dramat, whose units were busy with investigations into Lamoer and his alleged druglord sidekicks?
She assured Lamoer she had told Dramat and Ngcobo to arrest the druglord but “leave my management alone”. Why would someone in her position find it necessary to say this?
Is Phiyega not the one person who must respect due process, and who must know that if Lamoer is as innocent as he claims, he will be cleared? Given her seniority, what did she think the weight of her injunction to Ngcobo and Dramat would have meant to them? By saying “leave my management alone”, did she imply that even if there was a case for Lamoer to answer, such a case should be quashed? What, Ous Riah, must we think of your words?
If she has no confidence in the system she is in charge of, how should we, mere mortals, relate to the system? Should we take police management seriously the next time they tell angry lynch mobs in Diepsloot to be patient with the legal system – which starts with her men and women doing necessary investigations, as was the case with Lamoer? Or should we, too, behave like the wretched of the earth and seek solace in jungle justice? How could we have a top cop who not just thinks but says things like these?
Rene Descartes, in Discourse on Method, said of senior people like Phiyega: “They who set themselves to give precepts must of course regard themselves as possessed of greater skill than those to whom they prescribe; and if they err in the slightest particular, they subject themselves to censure.”
Lastly, Lamoer didn’t even ask for an update – she volunteered the information. Why? She also volunteered the fact that the investigation was not initiated by her or Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa. For what good reason was this necessary to share? Could it be she needed to ingratiate herself to a subordinate in order to gain allies, or recognition from within, given the criticism about her lack of policing experience?
The need for recognition is a loaded topic dating back centuries. The relationship between a slave and his master might be commercial in nature, but has its roots in the need for recognition, for example.
The Haitian revolution, too, is anchored on this. Georg WF Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask trope explore the need for a sense of validation inherent in these power relationships.
“A great deal of contemporary politics,” writes Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order, “revolves around demands for recognition, particularly on the part of groups that have historical reasons for believing their worth has not been adequately acknowledged: racial minorities, women, gays, indigenous peoples and the like.”
Whether or not Phiyega has defeated the ends of justice is moot, which is why, I suppose, the criminal investigation currently under way by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate is critical.
For me, though, the disappointment in Ous Riah runs deep. She put herself in this corner. It was so needless. She should have known crime intelligence listens to almost everybody. It is a cesspit.
That this sort of column about her is necessary – owing to her alleged malfeasance – is shameful.
That Phiyega can’t even say the words attributed to her are false is an indictment.
I do hope she is innocent but, as Wittgenstein says, “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself”. If she is guilty, Phiyega must face the harshest punishment befitting her transgressions.
* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak