Mandy Wiener

The McBride mess is more complicated than good vs bad

2019-03-03 06:19
Robert McBride at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Photo: Christiaan du Plessis

Robert McBride at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. Photo: Christiaan du Plessis

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To distill the standoff between Robert McBride and Bheki Cele into a good guy being stopped from bringing down the bad guys because of political intervention is a bit far-fetched, writes Mandy Wiener.

This week's news headlines have been dominated by the standoff between Robert McBride, the head of police watchdog IPID, and Minister of Police Bheki Cele. There have been allegations, counter allegations, last ditch court bids and a hostile, heated two-day debate in Parliament which was overwhelmingly partisan and nasty.

The nub of the story is this: Robert McBride's tenure as IPID boss was coming to a close at the end of February. He wanted to stay on but Cele was having none of it. Cele wanted McBride out. ASAP.

This was odd because McBride is deep-rooted ANC - he was brought into the job by the ruling party and of course this is the same man who was once on death row for the role he played as an MK soldier for the ANC.

When he was nominated for the post of IPID head, the opposition parties vehemently opposed the move. They were dead set against it. McBride was tainted and laden with baggage.

Fast forward five years and the situation has entirely reversed. Now it is the DA MPs who have been his most vociferous supporters against the ANC MPs who are clearly toeing the party line set by Cele.

The narrative set out in the media has largely been that McBride surprised everyone by doing his job by actually cracking down on corrupt cops, particularly former acting National Commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane and the Crime Intelligence network.

Difficult history with law enforcement

To drive home that point, on Friday this week Phahlane was arrested yet again as a result of an IPID investigation into a R86m blue lights tender fraud.

When McBride began to scratch too close to Cele, his time was up. The big investigation was that he believed an attempt by Crime Intelligence to procure a cellphone 'grabber' for a grossly inflated sum of R45m, instead of R8m, was an attempt to siphon off the cash from a secret slush fund to pay for votes at the ANC's Nasrec conference in 2017.

If that's true, the ruling party would have been pissed with McBride for getting in the way of the cash flow.

But invariably in these instances, it's never as cut and dried as it seems. Granted, McBride has been gunning for corrupt cops and there have been actual arrests and prosecutions. But to distill this standoff into a good guy being stopped from bringing down the bad guys because of political intervention is a bit far-fetched. It's far more nuanced and complicated than that.

Robert McBride and lawyer Jac Marais

Robert McBride and his lawyer, Jac Marais, at court to defend his position as head of IPID. 

McBride is by no means an angel. He has a vexed, difficult history with law enforcement in the country. (To be clear, all the latest trumped up allegations that have been heaped on him in an attempt to push him out of IPID, largely failed to stick. The Public Service Commission did make a finding against him relating to a labour issue involving an officer and the public protector is still investigating allegations against him. He was also acquitted on appeal of drunk driving charges when he was the head of the Ekhuruleni Metro Police).

Yet despite all the controversies he has courted, he was picked to be the man entrusted with watching the watchmen.

Dirty games of politics 

It is also conveniently forgotten that Cele was effectively fired from his job as national police commissioner after former public protector Thuli Madonsela found him guilty of improper conduct and maladministration.

He signed a R500m lease for a new SAPS headquarters in Pretoria that benefitted businessman Roux Shabangu, who was a friend of former president Jacob Zuma. Here's a guy who was removed as police commissioner and a few years later gets elevated to the position of minister.

In typical South African fashion, both Cele and McBride have run several cycles in the washing machine of local politics and regardless of their pasts have been thrown out back to the top of the pile.

Both McBride and Cele are masters of the dark arts. They are old operators who have been moving in intelligence circles for decades. They are veterans of playing the dirty game of politics. They have more skeletons in their closets than there are in a graveyard. More importantly, they also know where the skeletons of everyone else in power are buried. Now these two bulls are at war with one another and as the African proverb goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled. That could not be more true in this instance.

McBride is set to drop all the dirt at the Zondo inquiry and you can rest assured, Cele won't take it quietly. The focus will also be on what happens to the high profile corruption investigations into senior cops once McBride is pushed out.

This mess is only going to get uglier and when two old elephants like these are fighting, the criminal justice system and the public's faith in it will get trampled.

- Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    robert mcbride  |  bheki cele  |  corruption
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