If we look back at the tenure of National Commissioner of Police Jackie Selebi, it was distinguished by passivity and lack of effectual response to problems. Selebi’s line seems to have been very much Mbeki’s line — that everything of importance was in place, and that all that was necessary was to continue doing what had been done, only better. As the first black person to hold the job, possibly Selebi also feared attracting the attention of hostile whites through any pursuit of innovation. However, he seems to have been temperamentally reluctant to make major transformations.
The big questions about policing in South Africa are administrative, since the goals are not (or were not, under Selebi) in dispute. These goals are to preserve public order and discourage crime by uncovering and imprisoning culprits. How does one coordinate the different units of the service? How are resources best allocated — through small specialised and highly-trained units, or through larger, less specialised and perhaps less skilled (but more widely-supported) commands? How should communication, command and control coordinate national, provincial and municipal/district administrations? How can one ensure and improve the quality of individual officers and encourage them to cooperate with one another? How to root out the macho barbarity of the “shoot to kill” culture of impunity which evolved under apartheid? How to collaborate with civilian bodies, non-governmental organisations and other policing and espionage entities at home and abroad?
Selebi never seems to have answered any of these questions, and in the absence of leadership from the Commissioner the problems arising from them began to grow serious. However, this lack of leadership was made more harmful by the systematic hostility to Selebi expressed in the media and by opposition parties. Selebi was not only the first black to take charge of the police, he was the first active ANC member to take charge of the police. Hence racists and opponents of the ANC denounced Selebi using any rumour, allegation or manufacture which came to hand.
If these attacks had been combined with a coherent strategy for reforming the police, they could have put pressure on Selebi to deliver a more effective police service, or demanded Selebi’s replacement with a more diligent and competent Commissioner. Instead, the attacks seem to have been driven by complaints from right-wing ex-policemen seeking to restore the failed policies of the apartheid police force. Obviously this campaign forms a part of the general campaign to reverse the 1994 settlement. Some of the points in this campaign might be valid (such as arguments that disbanded child protection units should be reinstated — although the old units were often horrible nests of crazed religious fundamentalists). However, Selebi and his allies in government were quite rightly unwilling to make concessions to such forces.
This, unfortunately, left South Africa with policing questions which nobody seemed able or willing to answer.
Selebi’s actual removal from office, meanwhile, was performed in the most crass and destructive fashion imaginable. It was initially a weird side-effect of the Zuma wars — derived from the elite crimefighting element of the Department of Public Prosecution, the “Scorpions”. Mbeki set this group up because it was correctly perceived that the SAPS were usually too lazy or inept to reliably investigate crimes where the criminal had access to good lawyers and therefore completely ironclad cases were required. Often the SAPS were so corrupt that any reasonably affluent person could buy his or her way out of a charge, by ensuring the disappearance of the docket or the demise of the chief witness or investigator. There are obvious advantages to having such a unit, so long as it does not grow slovenly or corrupt; there are also disadvantages, including the lowering of regular police morale, and the danger that such an elite entity will become the effective bodyguards of the rich and powerful.
When the role of the Scorpions in investigating Zuma was questioned, Selebi called for the Scorpions to fall under the SAPS. He probably simply wished to enlarge the SAPS empire and to take credit for any Scorpions successes once they fell under his ambit, but he may also have felt that the harmful aspects of the Scorpions outweighed their positive side. This has never been discussed, because the Zuma cabal disbanded the Scorpions simply in order to “prove” by propaganda that the Scorpions’ investigation of Zuma had been corrupt. (In fact, the Scorpions’ investigation of Zuma appears to have been thorough and effective.)
As punishment, the Scorpions proceeded to investigate Selebi, looking at Selebi’s close friendship with Glenn Agliotti, a white ANC businessman loosely linked to the Brett Kebble cabal. They tried to prove that this friendship entailed corruption — that Agliotti had given gifts to Selebi (which was true, and showed that Selebi’s judgement was severely at fault) and that these gifts were bribes (which was never proven; Selebi was found guilty by judges who assumed that the gifts were bribes). The absence of evidence that Selebi had served Agliotti’s interests would usually be a precondition for a conviction, just as one normally requires a missing person before a murder charge can be laid, but this was ignored in the rush to imprison Selebi..
Was it simply that forces opposed to Selebi in the conservative community united with the Scorpions? The Zuma cabal had no reason to hate Selebi, whose hostility to the Scorpions provided the Zuma cabal with useful support. Selebi’s police had never investigated Zuma — and when a key Zuma ally, Blade Nzimande, was charged with fraud, the police went several extra kilometres to quash the charges and bully the complainant into dropping them. Nor did the police “investigation” into the National Intelligence Agency’s disinformation campaign in support of Zuma lead anywhere. Selebi might have been appointed by Mbeki, but he did not serve Mbeki’s interests. Possibly he hoped, through this, to keep his job, but instead he was railroaded out of office and eventually into an ignominious show trial, conviction and harshly disproportionate penalty.
Perhaps the feeling was that the police service could thus draw a line under the Mbeki era and bring a new dawn under the new Zuma appointment, National Commissioner of Police Bheki Cele. However, there was no sign that the new broom had any idea of how to sweep. Cele was a Zulu from Kwazulu-Natal who had worked closely with the conservative elements in the police and the white community policing forums and with the business community in that province. His appointment was, in part, an effort to secure Zuma’s powerbase by bringing his ethnic colleagues (and political allies) into key posts. It was also likely to be popular because Cele was admited by the right wing and accepted by the old guard in the police, and the appointment of a black ANC member to the position was no longer a novelty, so did not arouse so much ire — although, as with Selebi, there were plenty of racist cartoons; where Selebi had been compared with an ape, Cele was compared with a gang-banger.
Even closer to Zuma than Cele was the Minister of Safety and Security, Nathi Mthethwa. Mthethwa speedily had his title changed to Minister of Police and then changed the police rank structure to a military one — in both cases going back to apartheid days. Together with his Deputy Minister Susan Shabangu and Cele, Mthethwa began an ill-advised campaign to encourage the police to use more force, which eventually led to the police killing and maiming more people, including in relatively peaceful public protests. These were the actions a right-wing populist clique more concerned with getting headlines than with making any useful contribution to South Africa’s policing problems. In fact, no such useful contribution materialised. All the problems continued, and therefore grew worse. However, all such problems could be blamed on Selebi, who provided a handy excuse for doing nothing effective about them. Now that we have Cele in authority, they said, all corruption and dishonesty has vanished from the office of the National Commissioner of Police.
Very rapidly this turned out to be a lie. It was alleged that the police service’s national headquarters in Tshwane, and provincial headquarters in eThekwini, were outdated and unsuitable. The logical thing, were this true, would be to build a new set of headquarters, but that would take time and cost a lot of money. Instead, in line with the new business-friendly agendas of the Zuma administration, why not privatise the headquarters? Rent office space for police headquarters from a private company who would operate more cheaply than could be managed by a state-run operation, since private operations are always cheaper and more efficient than public ones, as the Zuma mantra has it. Surely, there was no risk! Especially when the private contractor was nice Mr. Roux Shabangu, possibly no relation of Susan, a slumlord of note with friends in the Zuma cabal in the ANC, not least of whom was Mr. Cele himself.
It is probably not a good idea to privatise police headquarters (a word in the ear of the British Home Secretary, who is planning the matter as this is written). Ordinary office-blocks are not necessarily suited to the task. There are also security issues — the layout of the building is in the public domain, and it is hard to secure an ordinary building from the spying devices which organised crime has access to. However, these good reasons were overridden, partly under political pressure and partly on the pretense that money would be saved. Only after it was revealed that money would not be saved, because Shabangu, like a good slumlord, was charging the SAPS ridiculously high prices and delivering a shoddy, ill-maintained and unsuitable set of premises for their use — only then did Cele get into trouble.
The National Commissioner must have known about the Tshwane deal, and the Durban deal should have come to his attention. Therefore, he ought to have looked into the costs. Either he simply did not apply his mind, or he deliberately and enthusiastically allowed a corrupt property developer to enrich himself at the state’s expense, to the tune of hundreds of millions of rands (several thousand times greater, it may be emphasised, than the sums supposed to have changed hands between Agliotti and Selebi). In which case, Cele is a fraudster on the scale of Brett Kebble, and ought to be punished accordingly (as Kebble never was). Someone ought to investigate this, but who? The police service has no interest in looking into the matter, and nobody else has investigative capacity. (The secret police would supposedly be able to, but that is another story.)
Meanwhile, however, the police service has fallen into bad, weak hands. Cele has been suspended, but not replaced. Cele and Mthethwa’s policies have not been rescinded. All that we have gained from all this is a steady stream of positive stories coming out of the SAPS, which may or may not be true, and the strong probability that even if they are true, mismanagement and unresolved crises will surely render the police service ever less effectual over time.
And nobody seems to care.