Outgoing South African Police Service national spokesperson, Vish Naidoo, who has served in the position for 16 years, says he has sympathy for journalists as they have growing demands in a shrinking industry. Naidoo speaks to James de Villiers about why he decided to leave the position as spokesperson, why he thinks people struggle to understand policing in South Africa, and what his advice would be to improve policing going forward.
Vish Naidoo, 54, who resigned as national South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson in January, says he empathises with journalists in the country.
Over his 16 years serving in the position, Naidoo has grown to become a well-known name in South African households and a crucial contact to journalists in a government where officials fiercely distrust the media, and often ignore enquiries.
Dressed in his full police uniform, Naidoo adjusts the laptop camera he is using for the virtual interview, and says: “I’ve crossed arms with quite a few journalists over my years, but there was never anything personal, because all was done very professionally. We still maintain a good rapport.”
He smiles somewhat sheepishly, before staring at the desk before him. “There isn’t any bad blood between any journalist and myself.
“I think journalists have a very difficult job, especially in this day and age, when everything is being digitised. Media is going online.
“And I feel sorry for journalists as well. Because, previously, when I first started in 1995, as a provincial spokesperson, you had one or maybe even two journalists per beat. But now you have one journalist covering all beats, and it can’t be easy, I’m sure.
“One should be mindful of the challenges journalists have and to try and be as accommodating as possible. Journalists are from very thin newsrooms, so we have to try to meet them halfway, if we can.”
Always wanted to return to Durban
Naidoo is speaking to me from his new office in Durban, having recently relocated to the coast from the capital, Pretoria, after nearly two weeks of trying to find a suitable time for our interview.
The South African flag is spotted hanging on the right-hand side of his screen, while a number of police commendations can be spotted on his uniform.
It’s been a busy few weeks, he admits, after accepting the position to head KwaZulu-Natal’s inspectorate, with a number of strategic meetings taking place, while moving trucks delivered his belongings from the capital city.
“I must say to you that, after 16 years, wanting to come back to Durban, to KwaZulu-Natal, has always been my desire. I said, when I turned 55, I want to spend and work in my home province and be able to give back my last five years of my career,” he says, adjusting his large black-framed glasses.
But, he adds quickly, other personal factors have also contributed to his decision.
As head of the provincial inspectorate, he’ll be responsible for ensuring that all police stations in the province comply with national rules and regulations.
This year marks 36 years since Naidoo joined the police service, first working in the Police Community Service Centre, before becoming KwaZulu-Natal provincial police spokesperson, and then national spokesperson.
In his career, he has seen the country’s first democratic elections, and worked under numerous police ministers and commissioners – maintaining a steady voice in a sea of change when the country was undergoing some of its most tumultuous times.
But, he is quick to clarify, that he was not the spokesperson during the Marikana Massacre of 2012, where more than 40 miners died, “for reasons I don’t want to mention at this stage”, nor was he involved in the July unrest of last year, as he was home recovering from Covid-19.
People do not understand the complexity of the police
As the afternoon sun starts to shine through his office window, Naidoo says highlights of his career include serving as the safety and security spokesperson for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where he had to travel to multiple countries.
Laughing, he says:”And then, of course, one of the lows that comes to mind now is being disturbed by journalists at any and all hours of day and night. But, I think, that being a spokesperson for the SAPS has not been a job – it’s been a vocation, but more than that, it’s been a privilege.”
“When I was on vacation, whether it was it was weekends or public holidays, I had to be accessible, because the media is always wanting something, some or other comments.”
Naidoo says people generally do not understand the complexity that is involved with policing in South Africa, and it was always a challenge to try and communicate it to people.
“You know, having to deal with and combat crime, has never been and will never be the sole responsibility of the police. Because if you take, for example, your contact-related crimes, such as gender-based violence, your murders, [and] sexual offences, these are crimes that are less policeable, in that they happen mostly in closed environments.
“And the perpetrators are more often than not closely related to or associated to the victims, and are known to the victims, and it happens in places where the police never have access to.”
Taking a deep breath, and staring into the corner of the room, he says: “You have to deal with crime that’s affected by, or it’s generated by social ills, so to speak. So it’s not just the police that can rid this country of those types of crimes.”
Always loved the uniform
He leans back into his office chair. Naidoo says he always knew he wanted to be a police officer, and was particularly fascinated by the police uniform.
“I was one of those kids that when a teacher asked what you want to do, one would say fireman, other would say school teacher, and I would always say I want to be a policeman.” Naidoo chuckles.
“I always love the uniform. Even as a spokesperson, I loved wearing the uniform: I went to a basic Police Training College, where I earned this uniform, if I may say so. And I think this is where your pride comes from: the shiny shoes and the glittering badges of the uniform just speaks volumes of a person’s character.”
As one of five children, his dad worked at packaging company Nampak before having to retire early after an accident. His mom was an “industrious”, stay-at-home mom (she’ll be turning 96 this year, and Naidoo says, smiling, that she is still “industrious”).
His dad, who has since died, played for the country’s only Indian rugby team, Springfield United.
Naidoo says his parents taught him and his siblings the importance of education.
He takes a pause, before explaining:”We never had things growing up; we grew up in a very poor family. But the one thing they instilled in us was education; it was very difficult times for us growing up. We had to walk kilometres to catch the bus and walk kilometres to school, we had to walk a long distance to communal tap water, and so forth.”
“But the one thing that our parents instilled in us and invested in us was education. And I think we carry that with us.”
He met his wife, whom he’ll be married to for 34 years this year, before she also joined the police, and together they had two children: one working as an internal auditor for the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, and the other working as a chartered accountant.
“My wife has been of great support,” Naidoo says, before smiling and adding: “but she’s also been my huge critic, especially when I did interviews when I first started as a spokesperson, and she always told me when I was fighting with journalists.”
How to be a good public servant
But, he says, it was Luke 6 verse 45 that always inspired him to do better within the police service.
“It says: For a good man shall come forward good, and evil men shall come for evil, for the abundance of the heart shall speak at the mouth. So basically, what’s in your heart should come out of your mouth and so, whatever is in your heart, has to be good.”
“But the advice I do want to give now, is that I think it is very important, especially for those who are applying to become police officers, to know that the SAPS is not a place one should think they can join to get rich: you must come in with a thought and an attitude of adopting or taking on this job as a vocation.”
He says his long career in the police has taught him a good work ethic. And, as he rubs his nose, he says his advice to the police communications team he leaves behind in Pretoria would be to always remember that they are public servants.
“The one thing I will take from my mother is that she told me to always remember that you’re getting into a job where you’re a public servant, it means that you must always be of service to the public.”
He takes a breath:”So whoever calls me, even if it wasn’t a journalist, I’ll do my best to help them. And if I couldn’t help them, I will try my best to redirect them to a place where they can be helped.”
“And I think if every public servant can do the same, I think we’d have one of the best governments in the world, one of the best public service in the world,” he says, before ending the call, and rushing off to his next meeting.