William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Time to say bye-bye Phiyega?

It’s going on almost three years since the South African Police Service (SAPS) shot dead 34 striking miners and wounded 78 others at Marikana. And it’s now a full month since President Jacob Zuma was handed the findings of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into those deaths.

Given that the inquiry dragged on for more than two years, instead of the four months envisaged, one would have anticipated some haste to cauterise the wound — allegedly extra-judicial killings by police officers which echo uncomfortably the 1960 Sharpeville killings of 69 passbook protesters by the guardians of the apartheid state.

The Farlam Report, however, is still sitting in Zuma’s heaped in-tray. While public impatience grows, his spin-doctor, Mac Maharaj, says he doesn’t know when the president will make it public.

Likely Maharaj doesn’t much care. After years of trying to put a gloss on dross — often resorting to that hoary “lost in translation” explanation for Zuma’s gaffes — Maharaj retires this week.

While Zuma is infamous for his dilatory executive style, this particular delay can only be deliberate. Since day one, the government has tried to contain the Marikana disaster by a process of heel dragging and obfuscation, especially by the SAPS witnesses appearing before the commission. It has worked well.

While the media has remained relentlessly critical, initial outrage at the shootings appears to have died down. In last year’s general election the African National Congress vote on the platinum belt was barely dented by the events at Marikana, despite a spirited and apparently well-funded campaign by radical workerist formations.

Importantly, the delays also enabled Zuma to keep the incompetent but pliant Riah Phiyega in the post of national commissioner of police for three years longer than she should have survived otherwise. Phiyega is important to Zuma, since the national police commissioner’s job is critical to Zuma’s raison d’être as president — keeping his own back, as well as the backs of his key allies covered.

Until now, Zuma has protected Phiyega ferociously, despite her obvious incompetence. However her lack of ability and her cavalier attitude to the laws that the SAPS should be enforcing, have become too much to ignore.

Last year, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko set up a special committee to investigate various claims of incompetence and irregular conduct, including her allegedly tipping off a senior officer that he was under investigation for suspected criminal activities. The Sunday Independent last week cited unnamed sources saying that the as yet unreleased report concluded that while the evidence did not suffice for Phiyega to face charges in a court of law, she should face a disciplinary inquiry, where the burden of proof would be less onerous.

It is likely that the Farlam Report will be even more damning. Phiyega’s performance before the commission was disastrous. She was evasive, dismissive and unconvincing, answering almost every question by the clearly sceptical Farlam with the refrain: “I can’t remember.”

A key aspect to the Farlam Commission’s findings is likely to be a SAPS meeting of senior officers, held by Phiyega on the day before the massacre. Whether she and her commanders adequately assessed the risk of bloodshed from any SAPS response, as one would expect of a professional police force, is important to assessing police culpability and managerial competence.

Amazingly, when questioned before the commission, the police officers concerned were all suddenly afflicted by collective amnesia. Again, under close questioning by Farlam, the best Phiyega could come up with was the chilling response: “I’m not able to give that kind of pedantic detail.”

In any other democracy Phiyega would have fallen on her sword way back in 2012, when television footage revealed exactly how poorly trained and commanded her subordinates were. But even in a Zuma administration where the concept of executive responsibility is unknown, it is inconceivable that Phiyega can survive a Farlam Report that is harshly critical of her role in Marikana.

But as is appropriate in an administration whose leader is a fundamentalist Christian, the lower you fall, the higher you will be exalted. So when Phiyega deservedly does get the boot, she should not be too disheartened.

Her predecessor, Bheki Cele was in the job for two years before being fired by Zuma, after an investigative board found him unfit for office, among allegations of corruption and dishonesty. He is now a deputy minister.

Cele’s predecessor in turn, Jackie Selebi, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption, though he was soon released on humanitarian grounds. When Selebi died in January this year he was immediately rehabilitated as a hero of the struggle, with talk of his convictions being expunged.

What ANC glories might yet await a disgraced Phiyega?

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    • Charlotte

      “A gloss on dross” and “lost in translation’ could be applied as ‘lost in dross’ when it comes to the story of S. Africa under the ZANC administration.
      The more you violate, the more you are venerated.
      Everyone of no worth eventually gets fired and not prosecuted – except for Jacob Zuma, who leads the way in not getting either.

    • johnbpatson

      The commission looked like a whitewash most of the time, going through the motions and accepting being lied to without a hint of contempt proceedings.
      At times it became bad pantomime — all that mystery witness giving evidence wearing a hood was laughable.
      Even if it recommended to His Excellency the President that the police minister and the commissioner were unfit to hold office, there is nothing to make him act, and the chances are, as you say, that he will not.
      Police were threatened at the COSATU May Day rally in East London for allowing Vavi supporters to sing and dance. It will not be long before the guns come out again.