Newsmaker – Nathi Nhleko: The man who wants to keep us safe

2014-09-22 08:00

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You can’t be “irresponsible”, fall victim to crime and then complain that the police aren’t doing their job, says Police Minister Nathi Nhleko.

The man tasked with deciding how much money his boss, President Jacob Zuma, must repay for upgrades to his Nkandla home wasn’t thinking about that daunting task this week. Instead, he was focusing on the country’s crime statistics.

Nhleko, who hasn’t yet started work on the Nkandla question, sat down with City Press on Friday afternoon in the wake of a press briefing that left South Africans despairing about crime.

But 49-year-old Nhleko wants people to know he understands: he’s been the victim of crime so many times, he says, that he’s lost count.

He also can’t remember how many times he’s been arrested. He was a student activist and trade unionist in the 1980s, and was frequently detained by the apartheid-era police.

Just after his appointment as KwaZulu-Natal’s prisons boss in 2006, he was robbed of R20 000 at gunpoint in Durban. This was money he’d raised for a Christmas party for orphaned children.

“I didn’t get that money back, but the event still went ahead. I felt bad for the children because, although the criminals robbed me, they in effect robbed those children of a chance [to enjoy] something I was trying to do for them.”

He likes children. He has five of his own, but is still looking for the right life partner.

In the nearly 120 days he’s spent in the “daunting” cop boss hot seat, Nhleko has encountered first-hand how little ordinary people trust police officers.

“When I travelled around the country meeting commissioners, I quickly realised that there’s still a lot of work in the area of transformation that needs to be done.

“Transformation not in the form of representation, but in terms of such issues as the ethical and value outlook, which, among other things, will include the relationship between ourselves as a service and the public to which we render the services to.

“I picked up this thing about the negative image from the side of the public and the members of the police service. For me that’s the starting point and it does look like we will have to continue to engage with that issue of rebuilding the relationship between us and members of the public,” said the former parliamentarian.

He’s concerned that the bad news often outshines the good.

“The fact is you have hundreds of thousands of police officers doing their best. You shouldn’t take that away. And there’s lots of them. The SAPS is littered with pockets of best practice and excellence. The fact is that we need to home in on those areas of excellence. It’s difficult to gauge morale, but all I see are people who go out there to do their best every day.

Of course there are challenges, but we will continue to deal with those.

“What I’d like to see is a situation where South Africans take ownership of policing, as well as the creation of a safe and secure environment.

“Right now we have these impossible kinds of beliefs and approaches that you can go drinking and be irresponsible, and get pick-pocketed on the pavement or something, and you turn around and say: ‘What are the police doing?’

“We see a situation in South Africa where communities have detached themselves from the responsibility of creating a safe and secure environment, and we can only change that through the creation of community-based structures that must work with the police in coordinating community-based services so that police are part of developmental initiatives in a community.”

One of his big focuses in the next few months will be to engage with communities on another “worrying” issue: violent service-delivery protests.

Coming from the trade union movement, Nhleko isn’t opposed to public marches. But 1907 violent protests were reported in this statistical period, and that bothers him.

“Why is it that when you’re pursuing what is legitimately your right, you think that you can achieve that right by beating up somebody else or by burning a library, damaging property? Why is it that you tend to think you can validate your demand by distraction? Those are matters that require our society to engage.”

The former director-general in the department of labour had a massive fallout with his then boss Mildred Oliphant late last year. He decided to launch a forensic investigation into the Compensation Fund, which upset Oliphant. She sent him to another office and appointed an acting DG.

But he was given a vote of confidence by Zuma and now works in Cabinet alongside his old boss.

He says it is “uncomfortable” talking about his relationship with Oliphant. “The only thing I can say is that in my work approach, orientation and everything else, I stick to principle. That which is not correct is not correct. I may not be the best or that good, but like every human being trying to do good, that’s what I’ve been trying to do professionally.”

Nhleko, a jazz lover who “fiddles with musical instruments”, loves books. At the moment he is reading Timothy Ryback’s The Last Survivor, a book about the first German town to build a gas chamber and concentration camp.

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