A new sheriff’s in town

2009-07-30 00:00

SOUTH Africa’s new national police commissioner, Bhekokwakhe Hamilton Cele, grew up in the Port Shepstone area on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast.

He was born on April 22, 1952. His mother, Albertina Mtshali, died when he was nine months old. She was a relative of IFP MP in the Legislature, Dr Lionel Mtshali, who is a former premier of the province.

His father, Gillford Cele, was an induna in the South African Railways. Cele moved to Lamontville to live with an elder sister after his father died in 1974 and this was where his political awareness grew. Because of a lack of finances, he had to leave school in Standard 8. He worked in several hospitals as a medical laboratory assistant, including in the Transkei and in Ingwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal.

In 1979, at the age of 27, he went back to school to do his matric at Umtwalume High School, near Umzinto, and was made headboy. He then went to Madadeni Teachers’ Training College but was expelled for speaking out against the shortcomings of the college. His old school, Umtwalume, invited him back as a history teacher and so started his teaching career.

He also became politically active in 1979, joining the student and youth movement in Lamontville. He was active in several community struggle campaigns, including the municipal bus boycott, which started in 1982 and lasted two years. This was followed by engagement with the 1983 rent boycott, which resulted in security police harassment. It was also the time he first made contact with the ANC underground. By then he was no longer teaching.

He then worked for Child Welfare as a community organiser in Hambanathi and was later employed by the church agency, Diakonia, as a community worker in Lamontville.

Cele was first picked up by the police in March 1985, after addressing a Sharpeville Day rally. He was beaten up and told to stay away from politics. When he persisted, he was arrested and received a second beating in August that year.

However, trouble came when the security police found a trunk of ANC material in his house that had been left by a comrade. He went into hiding, but by October 1985, he said the ANC in Maputo instructed him to leave the country. He resisted at first and eventually left before December that year. He was arrested by the Swazi police and imprisoned for two months before the United Nations High Commission took up his case. He was then freed and allowed to go on to Maputo. He underwent military training in Angola and returned to South Africa as an underground operative. His mission was to establish ANC political structures within the country, work with mass organisations and establish both an ANC library and a military political committee. He lived this clandestine life for 13 months, moving among seven different safe houses, before being arrested by the security police in August 1988. He was severely beaten up and kept in solitary confinement for six months.

When he became ill, he was sent to St Augustine’s Hospital where he was kept chained to a bed.

In February 1989, his trial for being in possession of banned literature and receiving military training abroad, started. Two people who had been in ANC training camps with him gave evidence against him. In August 1989, he was sentenced to six years imprisonment on Robben Island. He spent a year on the island before being released after the ANC was unbanned in 1990.

Cele returned to Durban where he became regional organiser of the ANC and later chairman of the Durban region. He became a member of the KZN Legislature, serving as chairman of the Safety and Security Portfolio Committee and in 2004 rose to the rank of MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison.

Supporters describe him as a charismatic personality and straight talker. His opponents call him a firebrand who shoots from the hip.

He is famous for his flamboyant dress sense, especially his large collection of hats. He favours fedoras and rumour has it that his hats are catalogued and he has up to 67 in his collection. It is also said that he wears imported Italian shoes and has a range of silk scarves that he wears colour co-ordinated with his shoes or shirt or hatband.

His supporters believe he will make a good commissioner of police. A former colleague describes Cele as a very determined person with a good work ethic. He said that some people see him as harsh, but this is because he wants things done properly.

It is understood that Cele visited Scotland Yard in 1993, where he spent several months learning from Britain’s top law enforcement agency.

Cele is well known for his controversial comments.

In July 2007, he called on police officers to shoot criminals when their lives are in danger. “I am sick and tired of burying police officers. Officers need to protect themselves. You have to defend yourself. You cannot die with a gun in your hand.”

He has been a tough-talking champion on the ill-effects of alcohol and drug abuse. In his budget speech this year he said that if he were president of the country for eight hours he would ban alcohol, as the abuse of alcohol is a major contributor of crime and accidents. He once said that it is because of the good example set by his father who raised him that he does not drink and smoke.

Cele has listed his interests in fitness and healthy living. He tries to visit the gym every day. He once said his favourite sports are soccer and tennis. His music preferences are R&B and what he describes as light or acid jazz. He enjoys reading, particularly serious political books, but turns to fiction, particularly crime novels, for escapist reading.

• Information from past KZN newspaper reports.

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