Newsmaker: ‘A woman is like a teabag...’

2012-06-16 20:00

New SAPS head is aware of the mammoth task ahead, but says her spirituality, strong leadership and resilience will stand her in good stead

Just hours after Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega was confirmed as the new head of the SA Police Service (SAPS), she received a call from her predecessor, General Bheki Cele.

Cele, who was released from his duties by President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday, told Phiyega: “I have learnt a lot in the two years (I was police commissioner). I’ve been there and I wouldn’t like to be selfish. I would like to share that which I think will help you.”

Phiyega says Cele congratulated her on her appointment and shared some of the lessons he thought she should not lose sight of.

“He had some illuminating suggestions. He offered me the opportunity to talk to him and I think I’ll take him up on that,” she says.

Phiyega (54) is the first woman to occupy the commissioner’s job in the 99-year history of the SAPS.

Responding to this observation, she says: “A woman is like a teabag. You can never know the strength of that teabag until you put it in boiling water and you can see whether you are dealing with strong tea.

“What I’m bringing into this organisation (SAPS) is a teabag, and the challenges that I will find in this organisation is the boiling water. So give me a chance and assess me a year into the boiling water.”

She never expected to don a police uniform one day, so when she was approached by the president, she couldn’t believe it.

“I just felt that somebody was making a big mistake. Why would they even think a person like me can make it happen? Being the woman I am, the best way of expressing my emotions is to use my own tears.

"But don’t take my tears as a sign of weakness. I was just baffled by what was before me,” says Phiyega on her reaction to the news.

She understands the challenges that lie ahead as she moves into a position that is fast proving even hotter than the Bafana Bafana coaching job.

The top order of the SAPS has been dogged by maladministration, fraud and corruption in recent years, which saw her two predecessors, Jackie Selebi and Cele, axed.

Selebi is currently serving a 15-year prison term after he was found guilty of corruption, while Cele was sacked for maladministration, based on the findings of a judicial board of inquiry.

Phiyega, who describes herself as a “cooperative and participative manager”, argues that she is resolute about what needs to be done.

“I also believe that success has no monopoly because it is shared with the team. We should all put in our collective effort.”

Like most South Africans, she says she has kept abreast of developments in the police force and, at some stage, she was worried by the negative media reports about the goings-on in its management structures.

“Before 2009, I thought we had lost our marbles (in the police force). We needed somebody else to do something. When the new administration (led by General Cele) came in, I thought they gave it the right weight in terms of focus and doing something about it,” she says.

“When General Cele came in, I felt that here’s a person who is going to make things happen and indeed I think whether we like it or not, and never mind the other challenges, that shift took place. With the recent unfortunate developments, I started asking myself: What’s going on? But it made me schizophrenic because I could still see the benefits, but at the same time something wasn’t kosher.

“Generally, I saw a north-moving trend in terms of our safety and security as a country,” says Phiyega,
Phiyega was born to parents who were both teachers and community development activists attached to
the Lutheran Church in the village of Leshwane, near Turfloop, in Limpopo.

To this day, she swears by the Bible and expresses, albeit in a rather diplomatic manner, reservations about visiting the shooting range.

“Not unless I shoot myself.

I haven’t been there (at a shooting range) and I don’t think the generals will allow me. We have people who can shoot,” she says with a laugh.

Phiyega says while she is looking to her colleagues for support in the mammoth task of making South Africa a safer nation, she will also rely heavily on the lessons she learned from her parents.

Phiyega – who has five sisters – credits her parents for her spiritual outlook because they moved around Limpopo building schools and churches while she was growing up.

“I have a community development, empowerment, education, religious background. I believe in the whole spirit of community involvement,” says Phiyega, adding that her experiences in the early years of her life gave rise to the resilience that saw her rise to the SAPS post. Leshwane village was a poor community with no water or electricity,” she says.

A graduate of the University of Wales, one of her many accolades is the Exceptional Woman Leader Award for 2002 while at Transnet.

In the early 1980s she was a social worker in Pretoria.

One of her main priorities, she says, will be to reach out to the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate – formerly known as the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) – to mend what has become a frosty relationship.

“No doctor can doctor herself.

It’s critical and important to have the ICD to police and regulate us.

The tensions will always be there between us because we will be saying you (ICD) are too harsh (in your findings), but at the same time the ICD is critical and important,” she says.

Phiyega counts Cabinet ministers Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Lindiwe Sisulu and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane among the women who have inspired her and wants those who are disparaging towards female leaders to be wary of a woman’s strength.

Today she will be in Pretoria praying with the Tshwane Ladies Forum of Uniting Reformed Church.

Will her religious beliefs influence her management style?

“I recognise the constitutional imperatives and I respect religious secularity. Religion is about that spiritual relationship that gives you health and spiritual growth, but where you source it depends on the individual,” she says.

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