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Toxic relationship between Cele and Sitole paralysed SAPS

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced this week that he and national police commissioner Khehla Sitole had agreed to the latter’s early departure from the police force “in the best interests of the country”, there could have been no truer way of putting it; it was indeed in the best interests of the country.

The toxic relationship between Sitole and Police Minister Bheki Cele was extremely harmful to the police and the nation. In the end, for the sake of South Africa, only one man could remain standing.

Ever since Cele assumed his role in 2018, it was clear that the tense personal and working relationship between him and Sitole was a marriage consummated on the hottest day in Hades. The two men were palpably permanently irritated with each other. From his body language, it was obvious that Cele viewed Sitole with utmost disdain. When the two men were forced to be next to each other for some or other public presentation, Cele looked like he wanted to offer Sitole a can of deodorant.

It grated Sitole that the former national police commissioner, who was very popular with the rank and file during his time at Wachthuis from 2009 to 2012, had more respect among the top brass and officers than himself.

The whole thing was bound to end in tears.

The dysfunctionality of the relationship played itself out in the most tragic way during last July’s civil mayhem, when the SA Police Service (SAPS) was unable to pre-empt and put down what the government now defines as a failed insurrection. The police were at sixes and sevens during that ugly week.

In their report released a few weeks ago, a high-level panel of experts appointed by Ramaphosa to investigate the violence stated that: Tthe instability in the police leadership ranks as well as the strained relationship between the minister as the executive authority and the national commissioner is not conducive to providing coherent direction and leadership to police officers they are meant to lead and to the public at large.

Minister of Police Bheki Cele
FIRED: Police Commissioner, General Khehla Sitole

Among the elementary functional failures that the panel found was the neglect of the Public Order Policing (POP) division, which is meant to keep the peace in this protest-prone country.

The report said: The numbers of POP officers are pitifully low, they are inadequately equipped and their equipment is not optimally maintained. We were informed that they have access to only one water cannon per province, they have no air capacity, they ran out of rubber bullets.

In a country where service delivery protests are rife, this smacks of sheer incompetence.

The panel of experts recommended that the process of appointing the national commissioner needed to be changed. In part, this would help regulate the relationship between the political and operational heads of the police force.

“We were informed that whether the relationship between a minister and a commissioner works depends on the individuals occupying the posts. This is clearly untenable, and if it requires closer scrutiny of the process leading to the appointment of the national commissioner, this should receive urgent attention,” members of the panel said.

It is a travesty that one of the most unstable leadership roles in government is the one that is supposed to ensure the stability of the country.

Not since George Fivaz has a national police commissioner completed their term. Jackie Selebi, a civilian who was brought in to speed up the transformation of the police force, instead decided to transform his pocket by sidling up to criminal networks. Cele, who had fallen out with former president Jacob Zuma, left under a cloud. His successor, Riah Phiyega, was suspended following the Farlam commission of inquiry into the Marikana massacre, and spent the last two years of her contract on garden leave.

Kgomotso Phahlane, who stepped into Phiyega’s shoes while her future was in abeyance, was suspended while in this acting position. And now Sitole, who was Zuma’s last major state appointee, has been sent to take an early shower.

Besides the damage wrought by the leadership instability, the organisation also fell victim to the deliberate hollowing out and repurposing by the Zuma-era state capturers.

The result of all this is that the SAPS is a very broken organisation and it is just not in a position to secure South Africans, whether from common criminals or from destabilising elements in the country.Whoever Ramaphosa appoints to replace Sitole will have the humungous task of undoing a decade of damage. Other than the appointment of the National Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief justice, this will be the most important installation of his presidency.

Ramaphosa has dithered in the appointment of the head of the State Security Agency, another institution fraught with factionalism and which was also a victim of the destructive Zuma years. It cannot be because there isn’t anyone with enough skill and integrity to assume this role. The reason is probably Ramaphosa’s fear of making decisions.

Hopefully he will not dither when it comes to choosing the man or woman who will head the country’s most important security organisation.

–City Press

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