Her CV is distinguished, with stints on the boards of a bank and the state rail operator, but many South Africans are wondering whether their first female police chief, Mangwashi Phiyega, has the clout to turn around a scandal-plagued, hard-pressed force.
When President Jacob Zuma sacked disgraced Commissioner Bheki Cele this week and announced Phiyega as his replacement, the first reaction of everybody from opposition politicians to police bosses was to reach for Google to find out who she was.
At her inaugural news conference on Thursday, Phiyega appeared to have difficulty adjusting – verbally at least – to her new role as South Africa’s top cop, Reuters reports.
Her comments were laden with management-speak about “strategic directions”, “stakeholders” and “paradigm shifts”.
“We believe that human capital investment adds value,” she said, commenting about police training.
Even after Cele, an iron-pumping Zulu who pepped up police morale by advocating shoot-to-kill as a remedy for the notoriously high rates of violent crime in Africa’s biggest economy, her sex is not seen as an issue.
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has pushed hard – and successfully – for greater gender equality, and more than four in 10 South African MPs are now women, one of the highest ratios in the world.
“The fact that she is a woman is not a problem. My concern is with her lack of experience with the police as an organisation and policing as a function,” said Johan Burger of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
“She is going to find it extremely difficult to come into an organisation that is already fraught with so many problems,” he said.
Of prime concern in a country where 44 people are murdered and 180 raped every day is that Phiyega’s main claims to fame have nothing to do with law and order.
She served for three years as a non-executive board member at Absa, South Africa’s biggest retail bank, and before that spent several years as a senior executive at state-owned rail-freight firm Transnet.
Most recently, she oversaw a presidential committee looking at the efficiency of state enterprises.
As an outsider, she has the benefit of not being part of internecine police struggles, the most recent being the on-again, off-again suspension of crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli – accused, among other things, of murdering a love rival and stuffing the payroll with relatives and mistresses.
However, as an outsider she is also treading in two sets of heavily tainted footsteps.
Cele, a long-standing provincial political buddy of Zuma, was dismissed after being ruled “unfit for office” by an inquiry into the irregular signing of a lease worth nearly $100 million for a new police headquarters.
His predecessor, Jackie Selebi, a senior ANC operative in the fight against white-minority rule, fell even harder from grace and is now languishing in jail after being sentenced in 2010 to 15 years behind bars for corruption.
“This one – she is just another politician,” one warrant officer at a Johannesburg police station told Reuters, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
While promoting an insider would have been better for police morale – and probably efficiency – it would have run against the grain of an ANC leadership increasingly reluctant to cede control in any sphere of public life.
“She’s clean and cannot help but bring a new perspective to the post, but the hope the ANC would not make a political appointment to this position was always destined to end in disappointment,” said political analyst Nic Borain.
“The ANC, especially Zuma’s ANC, is very careful to keep its hand on what used to be called the ‘repressive state apparatus’.”