When Riah Phiyega was appointed as national commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in June 2012, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) raised concerns that the many highly experienced senior officers who would be better suited for the job would interpret it as ‘a vote of no confidence’ by the president. While Phiyega is a trained social worker with some senior business management experience, she has no policing experience or qualifications.
Now – a little over three years after her appointment – Phiyega has been suspended subsequent to the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, which found that she lacked the integrity and leadership required for the post of SAPS National Commissioner. The commission was set up to investigate the tragic events at Marikana in the North West province during August 2012, which led to the deaths of 44 mineworkers and the injury of many more; mostly at the hands of the police. At the time of writing, the Board of Inquiry into Phiyega’s fitness to hold office must still submit its findings and recommendations to President Jacob Zuma.
But Phiyega will also be remembered for many other perplexing decisions, which further eroded her credibility and her ability to improve policing in South Africa. Examples include her support for some senior officers facing serious allegations; while at the same time irregularly forcing out highly respected top generals.
This includes her inappropriate interference in the criminal investigation against the Western Cape provincial commissioner, Lt. Gen. Arno Lamoer, and her inexplicable support for the discredited KwaZulu-Natal provincial commissioner, Lt. Gen. Mmamonnye Ngobeni – who faces serious allegations of corruption. On the other hand, Phiyega has spent considerable effort trying to remove the provincial head of the Hawks, Maj. Gen. Johan Booysen – who investigated cases of corruption involving police officers and a well-connected businessman.
There is also her curious decision to remove two of her most experienced and qualified deputies, Lt. Gen. Godfrey Lebeya and Lt. Gen. Leah Mofomme. (Both of these deputies recently won huge pay-outs against the SAPS due to the way that they were irregularly treated by Phiyega.) Instead, Phiyega preferred to rely on far less experienced and competent deputies, such as Lt. Gen. Nobubele Mbekela – who only joined the SAPS in 2011 and has a teaching background. Mbekela is currently suspended, among other things, for inappropriate public statements in support of Phiyega – arguably bringing the SAPS into disrepute.
Phiyega’s decisions and conduct caused tangible tension and discord among senior police officers. It also placed strain on long-standing and productive partnerships between the SAPS and other organisations, such Crime Line. On her watch, the SAPS often found itself having to defend the actions of its leadership instead of focusing on its primary policing responsibilities. It is not surprising, then, that serious violent crimes such as murder and robbery increased substantially during her three years at the helm of the SAPS.
It is against this background that Lt. Gen. Khomotso Phahlane was appointed in October 2015 to act as national commissioner, following Phiyega’s suspension. Phahlane is a career police officer with almost 30 years of management experience in various key areas in the SAPS, including management development, personnel management, basic training and forensic services. He holds certificates in management services and management consultancy, and a national diploma in police administration.
Within a few months of his appointment, Phahlane introduced a ‘back-to-basics’ plan for the police and embarked on a restructuring programme to facilitate the implementation of this plan. At an ISS seminar on 19 May, he explained that ‘back-to-basics’ simply means a return to getting the basics of policing right, and doing it properly and consistently. This includes a particular focus on improving discipline and enhancing police visibility. It further includes specific plans to address areas of ‘chronic under-performance’, such as those negatively affecting the performance of the detective service.
Phahlane’s restructuring of the SAPS, especially in top management, is particularly promising. He has moved or promoted skilled and experienced senior officers to positions where they best add value. A good example is the appointment of Lt. Gen. Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi as divisional commissioner for human resource development.
Mkhwanazi was acting national commissioner before Phiyega was appointed – and, by all accounts, performed well in this position. He is one of the most qualified operational officers in the SAPS, but Phiyega relegated him to the position of ‘facilities manager’ soon after her appointment. This created some suspicion that Mkhwanazi was being ‘punished’ for his intentions to take disciplinary action against the suspended and disgraced head of crime intelligence, Lt. Gen. Richard Mdluli – who is currently facing a host of serious criminal charges ranging from corruption to murder.
A novel addition to the management structure is the management interventions component, headed by a new deputy national commissioner, Lt. Gen. Gary Kruser. Having joined the SAPS in 1994, Kruser has extensive police management experience and knowledge of how the organisation works. This new structure is particularly promising for two reasons. First, it includes a newly established police research institute, led by Lt. Gen. Bongiwe Zulu. Secondly, it is made up of three lieutenant generals who will serve as regional commissioners; each responsible for deliberate management interventions across all nine provinces.
The three regional commissioners are all highly experienced career police officers, and their responsibilities include ensuring that ‘systemic organisational deficiencies’ are identified during inspections, and are effectively addressed. According to Phahlane, speaking at the ISS seminar, this structure became necessary precisely because of the inability of SAPS over previous years to ‘fix’ these persistent deficiencies.
Effectively reforming large police agencies such as the SAPS is notoriously difficult, and Phahlane may make mistakes. Nevertheless, he has shown impressive willingness to consult and engage with individuals and groups – both inside and outside of the SAPS – to find solutions for the many challenges currently facing this important organisation, and the country.
He is regarded as a ‘mover and shaker’ – and from what we have seen so far, he is prepared to do what it takes to make the police more efficient and effective. In a relatively short space of time, Phahlane has managed to instil new confidence in our police leadership and their ability to realise the kind of professional police service envisaged in the National Development Plan. Hopefully, Zuma will take into account the importance of experienced leadership and integrity when he has to appoint the next SAPS national commissioner.
Written by Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, Institute for Security Studies, ISS Pretoria