Newsmaker – Robert McBride: Loose cannon or the perfect fit for Ipid?

2013-11-18 08:00

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Former police chief goes to ground as media storm brews. 

Cabinet’s decision to nominate Robert McBride as head of South Africa’s police watchdog could turn out to be either a stroke of genius or an unmitigated disaster.

After all, everyone who knows McBride says he’s a man who rarely occupies the middle ground.

If all goes according to plan, the axed Ekurhuleni police boss, a former Umkhonto weSizwe bomber who won an appeal against a drunk driving conviction that cost him his job, will take over as head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) next year.

This week Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa announced the Cabinet recommendation and although McBride’s appointment will be fiercely contested by opposition parties, he is likely to take office before the end of the first quarter next year.

Dianne Kohler-Barnard, DA shadow police minister, has already announced her intention to go to court over what she believes is a tailoring of the advert for the post to suit McBride, who was accused of using the Ekurhuleni police as a private army by his former colleagues during his trial.

Whether McBride sinks or swims, shines or stinks, the so-far invisible nature of Ipid’s leadership will definitely be a thing of the past.

To date, its heads have been low-profile, unconnected individuals with a penchant for the back room, a far cry from the larger-than-life McBride, a man the media loves to hate.

It’s hard to think of a South African who draws more polarised reactions from their black and white contemporaries than McBride (50), the son of teacher parents who grew up in Durban’s impoverished and gang-ridden Wentworth township.

Much of the reason for it dates back three decades to the 1980s, when ANC guerrillas started bombing soft targets after the movement’s decision to “take the war to the white areas” in response to cross-border raids against its members and the National Party regime’s “total onslaught’’ strategy.

McBride’s MK unit, under the command of Aboobaker Ismail, bombed the Magoo’s Bar, a popular beachfront hang-out for off-duty SA Defence Force soldiers from the nearby Natal Command base, killing three women and injuring 73 other revellers.

They also planted the bomb that killed top Security Branch counterinsurgency expert Colonel Bobby Wellman.

The unit, which included McBride’s father, Derrick, was also involved in a spectacular raid on Pietermaritzburg’s Edendale Hospital to rescue wounded guerrilla Gordon Webster, who was being held there under police guard.

They fled to Botswana.

In 1987 McBride – who was captured by police while trying to get Webster back into the country – was sentenced to death for the bombing operations.

An international campaign to keep him alive worked and he was eventually freed as a political prisoner in the early 1990s.

McBride’s notoriety didn’t end with his release from prison.

He was awarded amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at a series of heated hearings in Durban.

McBride then moved to government and was appointed to the then department of international affairs.

McBride was arrested in Mozambique in 1998 on alleged gun-running claims, but was released without charge after six months, claiming he had been set up while investigating gun-runners as part of a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) operation.

McBride’s tenure at Ekurhuleni was equally disastrous.

In 2006 he was arrested on the R511 when he crashed his official vehicle after a Christmas party at the Hartbeespoort Dam, and charged with drunken driving and defeating the ends of justice.

He was jailed for two years in 2011 by a Pretoria magistrate, but successfully appealed.

In May the state lost an appeal against this ruling.

During his trial, policemen who were allegedly part of his inner circle claimed he had run the Ekurhuleni force like a criminal gang.

Witnesses described him as a “madman” who threatened to kill the families of several officers who allegedly spirited him away from the scene of the crash but later gave evidence against him.

A former colleague says that while McBride has the qualifications, and the organisational and bureaucratic skills for the job, his temper and volatile nature are a problem.

“Robert is an intelligent guy, with good skills and ability. The problem is with his temper. Robert flies off the handle easily and this will be a problem. He has the political clout to get the job done though and the balls to take people on. As long as he can keep his private life tidy and his temper under control, he could end up being fine,’’ he said.

‘Things got completely out of hand at Ekurhuleni. I think spending so many years unemployed and unemployable will make him more cautious and less likely to fly off the handle,’’ he added.

McBride’s personal life has been equally tumultuous, with his marriage to Paula, who led the campaign to keep him alive on death row, ending badly.

He is estranged from Derrick, who according to Wentworth legend chased him from the house with a gun, with the two ending up in a court skirmish over his mother Doris’ will, including a fight over her lounge suite.

Ipid officials are surprisingly upbeat about McBride taking over the job, quoting his political weight as a positive for the investigative body.

“All eyes will be on him, so I really don’t expect any problem,’’ said a senior Ipid official who asked not to be named.

“In fact, I expect that he will want to shine in this post.

“I believe this appointment will be good for Ipid. His political contacts and support within the ruling party are extremely strong and this will benefit Ipid, particularly in cases where we have to prosecute senior police officers who are themselves highly connected within the political establishment. He comes with a political weight that previous Ipid heads have not had.”

The source also believes McBride has a strong knowledge of the bureaucracy.

“Robert understands how the system works. There are issues, but I believe the appointment will be made when Parliament sits next year and once things settle, this could work out very well for Ipid and strengthen the institution,” he said.

McBride has gone to ground, refusing to comment in the media.

He told City Press through an intermediary that he wanted to stay out of the limelight and quietly get on with his life.

Given the reaction to the appointment – and his trouble magnet – this is not very likely.

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