Bheki Cele. Picture: THULI DLAMINI
Bheki Cele. Picture: THULI DLAMINI

Police minister Bheki Cele has come under sharp criticism in parliament for forging ahead with the appointment of the head of the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), despite a pending court case on the matter.

The Ipid appointment has been a contentious issue in recent times with opposition parties and pressure groups pushing to limit the involvement of the minister in a bid to ensure there is no political interference in the work of the crucial institution.

In a recent letter to parliament, Cele said he had nominated former director of the Gauteng department of community safety Jennifer Ntlatseng as the preferred candidate. Ipid has not had a permanent head since the departure of Robert McBride in February 2019, after his term ended.

According to the Ipid Act, the minister nominates a candidate to head the watchdog, and parliament’s portfolio committee on police must either approve or reject the nomination within 30 days.

The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) is challenging in court the renewal process of the head of Ipid. The matter is concerned with the question of whether the minister and the committee were permitted to take a decision not to renew the tenure of McBride, and the interpretation of the act in this regard.

“Until the court has pronounced its judgment, the office of the executive director cannot be viewed as vacant and, as a result, any appointments made to this office would be unlawful. We anticipate that the [Supreme Court of Appeal] will set this matter down for hearing during the November term,” HSF said this week.

On Thursday DA MP and police spokesperson Andrew Whitfield said the party will not support the nomination “especially in light of our repeated concerns regarding the fatally flawed nomination process”.

“The Helen Suzman Foundation’s case before the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) concerning the renewal process related to the Ipid executive director’s term of office is further cause to reject the minister’s nomination,” said Whitfield.

Since November the DA has consistently appealed to Cele and the committee to review the nomination process to ensure that it is open and transparent, he said.

“Not only has the entire process been shrouded in secrecy but there is a case before the courts regarding this matter, and earlier this year the minister himself missed his own legislated deadline to appoint a new head of Ipid.”

The party has said previously that as long as a minister can nominate an executive director of Ipid behind closed doors, a dark cloud of suspicion will hang over the watchdog and it will remain exposed to possible political interference.

Whitfield said the party had submitted a private member’s bill to amend the Ipid Act to limit the powers of the police minister in appointing the executive director of the police watchdog. The bill proposes that parliament leads the nomination process, that an independent panel be established to shortlist candidates, and that the public to be given an opportunity to comment on shortlisted candidates.

An amended Ipid Act recently signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa limits the minister’s powers, but specifically in terms of removing the head of Ipid from office. The amendment was made necessary by a 2016 Constitutional Court ruling stating that the police minister had no authority to dismiss the Ipid head without parliament instituting the necessary processes.

This was after former police minister Nathi Nhleko moved to suspend McBride. McBride had been engaged in a bitter turf war with Nhleko and former acting national police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane.

The Constitutional Court said in its ruling that Ipid was an independent body established in terms of the constitution. It noted that section 4(1) of the Ipid Act required it to function independently of the SA Police Service.

The Constitutional Court said in its ruling: “Given the nature, scope and importance of the role played by police in preventing, combating and investigating crime, Ipid’s oversight role is of cardinal importance.” 

The act will require parliament to have an oversight role in which a two-thirds majority vote will be needed in the National Assembly to suspend‚ discipline or remove the executive director of Ipid.

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