Three years ago, with the massacre of 44 people at Marikana, Riah Phiyega proved that she lacked the mettle needed to head one of the most vital organs of state, the police.

Last week, when in response to a personally damning Farlam Commission report she did not resign as national police commissioner but instead pleaded not to be fired, she proved something else. Her political naïveté.

Her rather pitiful explanations as to why she should be retained — the real problem, she said, was the institutional ethos instilled by her predecessors; she had been at the helm only a short while; all nine provincial commissioners want her to remain — show she doesn’t comprehend why she was appointed in the first place.

It wasn’t because President Jacob Zuma thought that a former social worker with zero police experience would at the stroke of a pen be transformed into Wonder Woman, nemesis of the criminal underworld. It was because the primary task of the head of the South African police is not crime fighting but running interference to the political benefit of the president and his cronies.

Zuma believed Phiyega would fit the bill nicely. Not only would he get kudos for appointing the first woman to the top cop job, but, most importantly, she would be malleable.

Riah Phiyega (Gallo)
Riah Phiyega (Gallo)

Phiyega’s previous job experience, mostly in the parastatal sector, had depended more on political credentials than corporate brilliance. She was a lifelong deployed cadre and her career had always depended less on what she knew about the sectors she served in — transport, ports, child welfare, public servant remuneration, the future positioning of state-owned entities, and the Road Accident Fund, amongst them — than knowing what the African National Congress wanted and delivering it.

Her lack of leadership skills was laid bare in the Farlam Commission report, which recommended that her fitness for the job be reconsidered. Farlam held the police actions responsible for the deaths of 34 miners, although it could not hold individual officers to blame for specific deaths, because of the lack of forensic evidence.

It did, however, lay at Phiyega’s door the responsibility for the police lies, evasions and obfuscations during the inquiry. And although Farlam made no mention of it in his final report, Phiyega’s performance in giving evidence was a disgrace: evasive, arguably mendacious and prone to convenient memory lapses.

Farlam was also critical of her failure to act, as recommended three years ago in the National Development Plan — to which the police had made no objection — to demilitarise the police. Farlam labelled her further failure in the months and years after Marikana, not to forbid the use of assault rifles in unrest policing, as “simply not good enough”.

The national commissioner is there to take a political bullet for Zuma, should it be necessary. And the Marikana debacle demands a high-grade scalp that is nowhere else available.

In some democracies, the head of government would resign or be ousted were he or she to preside over such carnage, especially since so many of the dead were shot in the back. That’s not how it works in SA and the president was never going to resign.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, at the time of Marikana a member of the ANC national executive as well as on the board of Lonmin, was exculpated by the commission. The then minister of police, Nathi Mthethwa, was last year, as time for the release of the report drew near, moved to the safety of arts and culture. The then minister of mineral resources, Susan Shabangu, is now minister of women’s affairs and also out of the picture.

Nor is there anyone else in Zuma’s inner circle who is going to take the fall, despite Farlam articulating strong suspicions that the police actions at Marikana were discussed, approved, possibly orchestrated, at the highest levels of government. That leaves only one target still on the political shooting gallery rack.

It’s time for Phiyega to step up, put on the blindfold, and take the bullet she signed up for.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


William Saunderson-Meyer

William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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