Once the support is gone

2015-09-29 06:00

WHAT do National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega and the Springboks have in common?

It sounds like the makings of a bad joke, but it is hard to see the funny side of both their bad performances.

Other than causing national embarrassment, neither Phiyega nor the Boks have the full support of the nation behind them.

There are some things you can tell from the outset will not end well.

South Africa has not had the best luck with our national teams, and we generally have to brace ourselves for disappointment and heartbreak in football and cricket tournaments.

The Springboks, however, have a better track record and therefore there was some anticipation about the Rugby World Cup in England this year. But when coach Heyneke Meyer announced the Springbok squad, concerns arose about the selection of so many older, injury-prone players.

Rugby has been a divisive sport and the lack of transformation is scandalous. Meyer seems to have missed an opportunity to include young black players to bring fresh talent to the squad and also unite the nation behind the Springboks.

Instead, support and national spirit have waned because of disappointment with the team selection, as well as a lack of confidence in the squad.

The Springboks’ disastrous opening match against Japan proved that these concerns were not unfounded.

It is still early days in the tournament and the Springboks might recover. But the confidence and support of the nation will be difficult to regain. This is also true for Phiyega. When she was appointed in 2012, Phiyega was a relative unknown.

It was a welcome move by President Jacob Zuma to break the glass ceiling and appoint a woman in the senior-most position in the police service. But because of South Africa’s alarming crime rate, the appointment was criticised because Phiyega had no experience in the security sector. Considering the appalling corruption scandals that plagued the two previous national commissioners, Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele, some people were willing to give Phiyega the benefit of the doubt. She was sold as someone who had strong administrative skills and people hoped she would have more integrity and would improve the functioning of the police service.

However, Phiyega’s statements a day after the Marikana massacre showed she was the wrong person for the job. She told a parade of police officers who participated in the Marikana operation that their actions represented “the best of responsible policing”.

“You did what you did, because you were being responsible, you were making sure that you continued to live your oath of ensuring that South Africans are safe, and that you equally are a citizen of this country and safety starts with you,” she said.

That statement two months after her appointment set Phiyega up as a defender of police brutality and a person out of touch with reality.

Her performance at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry showed that she did not take the process seriously, had no respect for the grieving families and refused to take responsibility for bad decisions by police management. She showed no remorse for the slaughter of the striking mineworkers by people under her charge. Phiyega never recovered from this. Once she lost public confidence, it was difficult for people to take her seriously. Now she is fighting to keep her job, as the president has appointed a board of inquiry to investigate her fitness for office. The inquiry will focus on the Marikana operation, Phiyega’s testimony and allegations that she misled the commission, and whether her statements after the massacre led to the police cover-up. Phiyega will have a difficult time defending these, but she is perhaps fortunate that the inquiry is not into her general performance as national police commissioner.

For the national commissioner and Boks to fight their respective battles, public support and confidence are essential. But after messing up so badly, it is difficult to win these back.

• Ranjeni Munusamy is a political journalist and commentator for the Daily Maverick. ranjeni.munusamy@gmail.com

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