Johannesburg - Like a cat with nine lives, and despite a trail of dishonesty and questionable decisions dogging her 22-month tenure, national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega continues to sidestep the landmines exploding around her.
In the latest explosion, the top cop’s management of the men and women in blue has once again come into question following her decision to retrench two deputies who refused her unilateral restructuring within the service.
Spilling from a decision seven months ago to slash three of her deputies, Phiyega in the middle of last month gave lieutenant-generals Godfrey Lebeya and Leah Mofomme letters declaring them redundant for not accepting alternative positions she offered them.
The two officers have 60 years of service between them.
Lebeya, who has a PhD in policing, is considered one of the top detectives in South Africa.
Mofomme, who has a Master’s degree in public administration, has handled human resources at the police since the 1990s.
During the realignment, Lebeya was to head a new research institute while Mofomme was to take over the Police Education Trust.
The two had argued that if they were not being demoted, they should keep their rank of deputy national commissioner. If not, a demotion process should follow.
After months of to-ing and fro-ing, Phiyega sent them notices of their retrenchment.
Phiyega’s fight with Lebeya and Mofomme is not the only battle she is in the middle of. She is also battling the South African Police Union, which has taken her to court to force her to explain why she rejigged the police’s top structures without consulting the unions.
Its argument is that restructuring needs to be dealt with at the police’s bargaining council first.
Phiyega has argued that unions were not consulted about previous changes similar to the current ones and certain union leaders want to dictate to her who she should appoint to positions.
Phiyega is scheduled to go up against the union again on May 16.
The restructuring battle is but one in a series of controversies that have come into Phiyega’s path since she walked into the head office in Pretorius Street in the Pretoria CBD in June 2012.
Last month, at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry, which is investigating the deaths of 34 miners at Marikana in North West, the testimony of Lieutenant-Colonel Salmon Vermaak created a problem for Phiyega.
On the stand, Vermaak revealed that Phiyega, with the North West police commissioner and her deputy, had told him to lie in his testimony and to mislead the commission about how some of the miners had been shot by the police.
He also said he had written a letter to Phiyega, highlighting shortcomings, in December 2012.
He said he had been summoned to Phiyega’s office in Pretoria a few weeks later.
The meeting was also attended by provincial officers.
When the massacre took place a month after Phiyega took office, she defended the officers’ decision to shoot the miners, saying they were acting in self-defence. She has stood by her comments.
Vermaak’s testimony came just weeks after the ANC said action should be taken against Phiyega for effectively lying about the so-called “fire pool” at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead.
Towards the end of last year Phiyega said the swimming pool was actually a fire pool, constructed as the most viable option for fire-fighting in emergencies.
When Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released the report of her investigation into the upgrades, she found that there was no basis for the swimming pool to be included in the security upgrades.
All this while the Independent Police Investigative Directorate investigates charges of defeating the ends of justice against Phiyega with Western Cape police commissioner Arno Lamoer, after Phiyega allegedly informed the lieutenant -general that he was under investigation.
Despite public statements that the directorate would only need three months to investigate the matter, nearly six months later the directorate spokesman, Moses Dlamini, said the case was still at an advanced stage.
And then there is also the matter of Lieutenant-General Mondli Zuma and Major-General Chris Ngcobo.
Phiyega withdrew Zuma’s appointment as Gauteng police commissioner two hours after she made the announcement because, unbeknown to her, he was facing charges of drunken driving and defeating the ends of justice when she picked him.
Ngcobo, who was acting crime intelligence head, was suspended last October for discrepancies in his qualifications. Six months later, there is still no charge against him.
Ngcobo was one of more than 10 officers whose names were on an alleged hit list of people to dispose of in the service.
Phiyega has also had to shoulder some blame for the death of Lieutenant-General Sean Tshabalala, the divisional commissioner of the inspectorate which monitors service delivery and investigates complaints against officers, who was found dead in his office in December.
According to a dossier Tshabalala allegedly penned in the months before his death, he informed Phiyega three weeks before he died that one of her deputies was harassing him over a nepotism and corruption investigation he was doing.
But the call went unattended.
Tshabalala was on the infamous hit list that Phiyega has dismissed. Phiyega has also taken a decision to review the Pretoria High Court judgment against suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli, who the court found should be charged internally.
Add to this recent reports on how Phiyega brought the police’s forensic investigation and IT support capability to its knees by cancelling three tenders worth billions just hours before they were set to be awarded.
She alleged that the e-mail did not follow the internal processes of the police service.
Gareth Newham, head of the criminal justice unit at the Institute of Security Studies, said the litany of errors Phiyega had made so far was to be expected, as she did not have policing experience or any background in the content and knowledge of operational, policy and legal processes within the police. “You can only expect that there is going to be a problem,” said Newham.
What was, however, surprising was her appointment in the first place, said Newham.
The retrenchment of Mofomme and Lebeya raised questions about the kind of decision-making Phiyega engaged in and the motivation behind her decisions, said Newham.
“When one gets rid of people who have such extensive police experience and networks from the ground up, you question how one is going to improve policing. That flies in the face of the National Development Plan,” he added.
The consequence, said Newham, was very real and devastating for communities.
“When the most senior police manager is not following the rules, how can you expect the ordinary men and women in blue to follow the rules? There will be a breakdown in control and command and that means big problems with corruption and brutality,” said Newham.
Professor David Masiloane, director of the school of criminal justice at Unisa, said under normal circumstances, if Phiyega was judged on operational matters alone, she would have been fired long ago.
He believes Phiyega has survived as a result of the political will to keep her. The challenges Phiyega had faced were not “normal”, said Masiloane.
“Lying is a very serious thing. Repeated lies make it worse. Under normal circumstances, she should step down,” he added.
It was clear Phiyega was not getting the correct advice – if any at all – but more concerning was that those who should exercise oversight over her were not doing so.
But Annelize van Wyk, chairwoman of the police portfolio committee, disagreed.
Although Van Wyk was reluctant to comment on Phiyega’s Nkandla statements, as processes were still under way in Parliament, she said the committee had never hesitated to call Phiyega to task.
The restructuring was a case in point.
Van Wyk said Phiyega ruffled feathers in the police when she started cleaning up.
“Among all the dust and the fuss, we have missed the good things that have happened. Phiyega has made a difference in terms of financial and administrative control, which were major challenges within the police,” said Van Wyk.
“There are better controls in terms of handling controls and there is a move into professionalising the police, although we still have a long way to go,” she added.
Phiyega came into the police at a difficult time, said Van Wyk, adding that it was unfair to judge her on her own as she formed part of a management team, who each had direct responsibilities.
With Phiyega’s new deputies in office for a mere seven months and her fight with the old deputies still not concluded, some may argue that it is too soon to judge the new management team’s performance.
Newham differs and believes the only performance that needs to be taken into account is Phiyega’s constitutional mandate to improve policing and promote a disciplined and crime-free organisation.
But whether Phiyega will ever have to answer for that still remains to be seen.