Police commissioner Khehla Sitole must either resign or subject himself to the indignity of an inquiry into his fitness to hold office – this was the stern message from sources who told City Press the top cop was fighting for his professional life.
However, it is not only Sitole who sources say is in the firing line: his political head, Police Minister Bheki Cele, could also find himself removed from his post.
This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his state of the nation address that there would be “leadership changes” within the security agencies.
The hunt for Sitole’s and Cele’s heads is the result of the riots in July, which exposed police incompetence and ill-preparedness in the face of looting and general unrest that claimed lives and severely damaged the economy.
“Ramaphosa wants both of them out. He’s weighing up David Mahlobo or Fikile Mbalula again. Mahlobo’s apparently made an impression on the president. Gauteng provincial commissioner Lieutenant General Elias Mawela is also being considered,” said a highly placed source in the security cluster.
The news of Sitole’s imminent departure this week reached police headquarters in Pretoria.
Another source said:It’s no secret that he’s going. I’m just not sure about Cele’s future, as he’s the president’s eyes and ears on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal and firing him could decampaign the president in the province, especially after the firing of former health minister Zweli Mkhize.
The source said Ramaphosa was trying to find a soft landing for Cele, possibly an ambassadorship abroad or a less sensitive position within the police service.
This week, Cele said he served in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet at the president’s behest and would take instructions from him regarding whether he had failed to execute his job properly during the July unrest.
“The president has spoken and said that Cabinet will take collective responsibility [for what happened during the unrest], so that’s what we’ll do,” said Cele.
He was quick to shift the blame to Sitole, who he said had failed to fill key positions within the police service. This, he said, might have resulted in its inadequate response to the unrest.
Sitole, in turn, has pointed fingers at Cele for failing to provide leadership during the riots.
Sources close to Sitole said he had compiled a detailed report that demonstrated how the police service was hamstrung by Cele’s alleged interference in its operational matters.
The sources added that Cele’s refusal to sign off on the crime budget had crippled the police’s ability to collect intelligence prior to the riots.
Ramaphosa has written to Sitole asking him to say why he should not face an inquiry into his fitness to hold office. This came after Cele asked the president to conduct the inquiry.
Cele’s request was prompted by a damning ruling by the Pretoria High Court that Sitole and deputy commissioners Ntombenhle Vuma and Lebeona Tsumane had “breached their duties” by not handing over or declassifying documents for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to look into allegations of fraud and corruption.
Sitole – who has also approached the Supreme Court of Appeal to overturn that high court judgment – wanted to make a presentation before Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence.
He wanted to explain his role in the botched plan of spending R45 million on the acquisition of so-called grabber communication surveillance devices ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017.
This week, sources close to Sitole said Cele had used the damning arbitration report on the firing of Sitole’s deputy, Lieutenant General Bonang Mgwenya, and his absence in Parliament as another reason for Sitole’s removal.
“Cele just wants him out. They haven’t had a working relationship since Cele’s appointment as minister of police. Cele hasn’t supported Sitole in fighting for a budget. The police have no protective gear, not enough inyalas and only two water cannons. Sitole is working, but gets blocked by Cele, who interferes with operational management – a sign that his appointment as minister wasn’t thought through properly, due to his having been the police general. He also demands that Sitole leave his office for public relations activities, which then leaves police management unattended,” said one security cluster source.
The arbitration report, which City Press has seen, found that the police had not followed proper procedure when dismissing the second-most powerful police officer.
“The SA Police Service is ordered to pay Bonang Christine Mgwenya R328 963.95 on or before February 28, 2022,” wrote Safety and Security Sectoral Bargaining Council commissioner Trevor Wilkes.
Sources revealed that it was this report that Cele wanted to use to demonstrate that Sitole was unfit to hold office, as he was allegedly involved in factionalism and had targeted some officers who had a good working relationship with the police minister.
Mgwenya was chief of staff during Cele’s tenure as the police commissioner. Sources within the police service said that, prior to her dismissal, she had been seen as the de facto police boss and had a direct line to the police minister – something that caused friction between her and Sitole.
“The minister would call Mgwenya directly if he wanted something and Sitole would be left in the dark. That created serious animosity between the two,” said one of the sources.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s probe of the police service’s “grabber” purchase was instigated by a complaint from Brigadier Tiyani Hlungwani, a crime intelligence officer who filed an affidavit with the police watchdog alleging corruption in the acquisition of the data intercepting devices.
According to Hlungwani’s affidavit, the devices had been significantly overpriced and the procurement process had been irregular.
A single device, he maintained, traded for an estimated R7 million, but the money being requested was much more than that.
There have since been allegations that the inflated amount was intended to secure funds for the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma slate during the ANC’s 2017 elective conference.
A LAMENTABLE HISTORY OF POLICE COMMISSIONERS
Sitole is not the first police officer who has risked leaving office before completing his term, or been compelled to do so.
The late Jackie Selebi, who was found to have had a corrupt relationship with convicted druglord Glenn Agliotti at the time of mining magnate Brett Kebble’s murder, was dismissed and handed a 15-year prison sentence in 2010. He died at the age of 64 while out on medical parole.
Selebi was replaced by Cele. The Moloi commission of inquiry found gross misconduct in his dealings with a property lease for the police headquarters. He was dismissed as a result of its findings, but managed to have them reviewed before he returned to formal politics, in which sphere he had been active before being appointed national commissioner of police.
Following Cele’s dismissal, his successor – Riah Phiyega, who was appointed in June 2012 – also left under a cloud after finishing her term on suspension following the Marikana massacre in August 2012, which saw police kill scores of striking mine workers at the Lonmin platinum mine in Rustenburg.