Tensions between Khehla Sitole and Bheki Cele at centre of intention to suspend police chief
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Johannesburg - The intention to suspend police commissioner General Khehla Sitole has been flagged as a result of ongoing tensions between him and Police Minister Bheki Cele.
Political parties reacted to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to launch an inquiry into Sitole’s alleged misconduct and fitness to hold office on Thursday, with some convinced Cele was nudging the president.
Ramaphosa’s office on Thursday confirmed that Sitole had been issued with a notice of suspension on September 20.
Sitole’s woes began when the North Gauteng High Court found in January that he and his two deputies, lieutenant-generals Francinah Vuma and Lebeona Tshumane, were in breach of their duties for not providing and declassifying documents for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) to investigate allegations of fraud and corruption.
The basis of the court matter stems from an alleged attempt by Sitole and his officials to procure a “grabber” – an electronic device with the capability to intercept phone calls and cellphone messages – for R45 million (despite these retailing at between R7m and R10m) before the ANC’s 54th national conference in Nasrec, allegedly with the idea of influencing voting for the governing party’s top leadership positions.
In a statement issued by the Presidency on Thursday, Ramaphosa has since deemed it appropriate to institute a board of inquiry into Sitole’s alleged misconduct and fitness to hold the office of national commissioner of police.
“This is merited by the public interest in the integrity of the office of the national commissioner,” the statement read.
The Presidency stated that Ramaphosa had outlined this context in his letter to Sitole and gave the commissioner 14 days to respond.
Sitole had since submitted representations in this regard, Presidency acting spokesperson Tyrone Seale said.
“While the president considers these representations, further engagement on this matter will be between the president and the national commissioner,” he said.
Advocacy group Action Society spokesperson Ian Cameron said a suspension like that during increasing levels of social unrest was reckless to say the least.
"Not only that, but it also means that challenges such as the gender-based violence (GBV) pandemic will be even more neglected, not to mention the social unrest risk posed by the upcoming elections and planned trade union strikes," he said.
SA Policing Union (Sapu) general secretary Tumelo Mogodiseng said the union believed Sitole's suspension was politically motivated.
Mogodiseng said the reason for suspending a person was to prevent that person from interfering with an investigation, the damage and impact on the organization, and the seriousness of the misconduct.
Whistle-blower and community activist Colin Arendse said Sitole's expeditious suspension has been long overdue.
Political analyst Sanusha Naidu said the security cluster suffered from a massive lack of trust and an inability to carry out its mandate.
She said the notice of suspension to Sitole created doubt in the minds of South Africans on whether the police would be able to carry out their mandate of ensuring the upcoming elections were securely managed, and for the country to enjoy free and fair elections.
"The impact of this notice of suspension and another inquiry adds to the disturbingly low trust element in the police and the rest of the security cluster.“
"I don't think President Ramaphosa's decision to issue a notice of suspension and launch an inquiry into the police commissioner's fitness to hold office will be a destabilising factor in the delivery of an election," she said.
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said it was unfortunate that directors-general always clashed with ministers, and the latter always had the last laugh.
The DA welcomed the action taken against Sitole, saying that the move by the president presented an opportunity for him to “completely clean up shop” at the SAPS by also removing Cele.
“The president has effectively chosen to side with the police minister in his ongoing spat with General Sitole, which has crippled the SAPS.
“It is not only Sitole who has brought the SAPS into disrepute, Minister Cele is also to blame for the ongoing dysfunction,” said DA Shadow Minister of Police, Andrew Whitfield.
FF Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said that while Sitole was shrouded in controversy, it would still be unfortunate to lose a commissioner with police experience, “seeing as stability in the top management of the police service is of the utmost importance while the level of crime in the country keeps rising”.