Riah Phiyega: The police commissioner with the tin heart

William Saunderson-Meyer on the suspended SAPS chief, whose term of office finally came to an end this week


Monday was Riah Phiyega’s last day as the National Police Commissioner. Well, sort of. 

There was no goodbye office party, with coffee and cookies. There were no nostalgic farewell speeches with loyal subordinates surreptitiously knuckling away a tear.

Because Phiyega has been suspended from her job for the past 20 months, she hasn’t had the schlepp of battling through the Pretoria traffic to turn up at her Wachthuis office and actually work. Another positive for her has been that this unintended vacation has, naturally, been on full pay.

Despite the suspension, Phiyega does have some bragging rights. She is, for example, the only commissioner since George Fivaz, a career policeman appointed in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela, to complete the statutory five-year term. 

Jackie Selebi, a political appointment by President Thabo Mbeki, had his office unexpectedly truncated by a 15-year jail sentence for corruption. Bheki Cele, a political appointment by President Jacob Zuma, survived barely two years before being fired after a board of inquiry into claims of corruption found him unfit for service. 

Phiyega, too, was found by a board of inquiry to be unfit for office, following the death from police fire of 34 miners at Marikana. Earlier, the Farlam commission of inquiry into the Marikana incident found that she her evidence to the commission had been misleading. 

One would know none of this from the SA Police Service (SAPS) website’s history of the service, which is a marvellous example of how to airbrush inconvenient truths. Maybe airbrushing is too subtle a description. SAPS’s official account of its past is industrial-scale propagandistic spraypainting.

To start with, this history commences in 1994. Presumably this is to avoid recounting the sullying incidents dating back to the force’s actual formation in 1913, lest we start drawing embarrassing analogies with the present day.

More specifically, Selebi’s appointment – a disaster not only for SAPS but for Interpol, the international police agency of which he was head until charged – is noted with the unintentionally comical observation that he marked the beginning of a “new era” for the SAPS. As it turned out, a new era, indeed, but not as was intended. 

Selebi’s subsequent abrupt departure is not even mentioned, never mind the reason for it. Similarly, with Cele.

Phiyega’s personal Waterloo, the Battle of Marikana, is never mentioned. Nor, obviously, the Farlam Commission, or the board of inquiry, or her suspension.

Phiyega’s name occurs only twice. Once, to record her appointment as commissioner, with the police minister assuring her of “all necessary support to ensure that we collectively continue to deal a blow to crime”. The second mention is a 2013 speech commemorating the police service’s centenary. 

Her speech – which the SAPS history breathily describes as “inspirational” – is actually a perfunctory introduction to the main speaker, the minister of police. Despite its brevity, it does have its own moments of unintended hilarity.

“Nothing will deter us,” boasts Phiyega without a blush, just a year after Marikana, “from ensuring that our women and men in blue conduct themselves at all times in a manner which is beyond reproach. At the same time we must tackle crime and criminals with vigour yet within the confines of the very laws which we are Constitutionally bound to uphold.”

These are remarkable words from a woman who has never shown the faintest public sign of contrition for Marikana. For she and Marikana have become synonymous. If one googles “Phiyega”, the search engine’s auto-complete instantaneously couples her name to the massacre. 

It must surely, at some level, hurt that it is for this tragedy that she will go down in history? To be ignominiously shuffled from the stage, always to be remembered as the one who presided over the unthinkable, the first police massacre under an African National Congress government – a massacre eerily echoing the 1960 Sharpeville killings by the guardians of the apartheid state – must be an emotional burden, no matter how brazen a face she puts on it.

On the other hand, perhaps this insouciance is not act and there indeed is no burden. Phiyega was an ANC deployee, not a through-the-ranks public servant. Politicians are not renowned for being finely attuned to feelings of shame and remorse.

As she put it when introducing the minister, presumably with a straight face, “We can never change history. In fact we must carefully preserve history so that we can celebrate the fact that injustices of the past have been rectified.”

Trust us, Phiyega, we will. South Africa will remember. 

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