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From small mutinies big coups doth grow

After 20 years of thwarted hopes and expectations, South Africans are adroit at juggling the private truth and public lie. The ability to reconcile these two without guilt or a giveaway smirk has become a necessary social skill to guard one’s career or business prospects.

This is very much a characteristic of nations drifting towards authoritarianism. “Going along to get along” is necessary where state power is unchecked, whereas there is less need for concern over peremptory punishment by the state in a strong democracy.

The old Soviet bloc, bizarrely still so admired locally that we seek to emulate its discredited ideology, was infamous for this juggling. Its citizens would enthuse in public over the state’s latest Five Year Plan while knowing full well that the resources to achieve it were figments of the imagination.

Among our own home-grown mythologies is the pretence that the public service is a professional, independent entity. In reality, we all know that it is nothing of the sort.

The most senior ranks of the public service are composed mostly of deployed African National Congress and SA Communist Party cadres. Ability has little to do with who becomes the director of the National Prosecuting Authority, or the head of a state-controlled entity, or the director-general of any of the many government ministries and agencies.

And the public service’s lower ranks are increasingly composed of the extended family of those appointed to the upper ranks. Again, ability has little to do with it. Nepotism and jobs-for-sale reign unchecked.

It is then uncontroversial to state that Riah Phiyega was appointed National Commissioner not because of a sterling career in the SA Police Service, or for that matter any field remotely related to law enforcement or justice. She took over from another political appointment, chosen on the same criteria that got her the nod — President Jacob Zuma wanted his cat’s paw in the post.

Given this seedy reality, why the more than three-year saga to now get rid of Phiyega? One does not need a commission of inquiry and a disciplinary process to know that this grace-and-favour appointment of a woman who has shown herself to be unsuited to command one of the most powerful arms of the state, should be voided immediately.

The reason it hasn’t happened is that labour laws and the rules governing public service appointments correctly demand due process. In the circularity of SA’s idiosyncratic politics that means what are effectively arbitrary appointments are, once made, protected by a carapace of regulations.

What a blessing for a now out of favour or disgraced. Those who were once summarily appointed can now instead of being summarily dismissed, invoke the Constitution

To be rid of them is then either to embark on a snail’s-pace legal process — which is what Zuma has followed with Phiyega — or to do a quick-and-dirty behind the scenes deal. Hence the exit of many failed public-sector appointees with a happy smile, clutching a bag of swag the size of which appears to be in direct proportion to their incompetence and/or dishonesty.

The irrational nature of all this is why I have a sneaking sympathy for the provincial police commissioners who are having such a torrid time from the parliamentary portfolio committee, reducing KwaZulu-Natal’s top cop to tears. The nine — after a nudge and a prod from Phiyega — had issued a statement in support of her following the report of the Farlam Commission.

The ANC was enraged by their actions because the commissioners appeared to be lining up on the side of Phiyega against a dismissal by Zuma. Parliamentary purists were enraged because this was clearly an intrusion into politics by avowedly apolitical police officers.

But these officers are not apolitical. They serve at the whim of a political appointment, albeit she wears a uniform. Career oblivion awaits if they offend and the only surprise is their naïveté in backing Phiyega against Zuma.

The politicisation of the public service is a double-edged sword. It provides the ANC with a feeding trough for lackeys but it also undercuts a lynchpin of modern democracies, a politically inert administrative and security structure.

When a governing alliance starts fraying, as is happening in SA, the fissures created by the vying factions extend deep into the police and military. From small mutinies, big coups doth grow.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • 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. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.