Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

Why did police minister Bheki Cele keep his job in the most recent cabinet reshuffle? If evidence before the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hearings on the July unrest is anything to go by, the police and its leadership were at best woefully incompetent and at worse complicit in the protests sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma.

Last week Cele displayed not a jot of contrition for the appalling crime statistics, which is bad enough. But the revelations at the SAHRC of how the police were told to do nothing, even as the country burnt amid the unrest, attest to no less than a crisis of leadership in the police.

The testimony continued this week. Police commissioner Khehla Sitole admitted that "at the very beginning" the police "did not do enough". In fact, testimony indicates that they weren’t up to the task.

The hearings raised another question: why did President Cyril Ramaphosa spare Cele when he moved the other security cluster ministers, whose response to the unrest was nothing short of shameful? Former intelligence minister Ayanda Dlodlo was moved to public service & administration and defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula was moved into parliament as speaker. Cele, curiously, kept his job.

Mapisa-Nqakula testified on Monday. She told the commission how it was up to the police to make a determination using their own intelligence and assessment capability about whether they would need the support of the army. The police made no such assessment, and in fact on July 11, when the unrest was well under way, Ramaphosa approached her to ask if the army could be deployed. She, in turn, called Cele and told him about the president’s approach to her and he agreed that the police needed support. She then asked him to make the request formally, and the process of deployment of the army followed from there.

While the police who testified indicated that they were overwhelmed in the early stages of the protest, the police leadership did nothing with this information. Cele did not move to get support, and who knows if he would ever have made the request had the president not approached the defence minister first. This one incident shows that Cele is woefully out of his depth.

What he is better at is playing politics. The perception among Ramaphosa backers is that he remains extremely influential in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. Cele, after all, was once the chair of the ANC’s largest and most influential region, under Zuma at least: eThekwini.

But how much of this power is perceived?

If Cele is so influential in KwaZulu-Natal, why did he fail to pick up that the unrest was coming, and why did he not move to halt it before it happened? He and Dlodlo differed over whether the police had received intelligence from state security over the unrest; Cele denied that he had received any. But if he is so indispensable an asset to Ramaphosa in terms of influence in KwaZulu-Natal, surely he could have seen it coming? Unless he let it happen as a weapon to wield in his own battle against Sitole. The pair have been at loggerheads, and Sitole was meant to be suspended. Ramaphosa asked for reasons why he should remain in his post over a month ago, yet he remains.

There are serious questions about the top leadership of the police, yet the president cannot find the gumption to act against any of the players. He pens missives about the levels of violence against women the crime stats revealed, yet fails to use his executive power to improve the country’s fight against crime. Then again, this is in line with his lily-livered style of governing.

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