Bheki Cele: A master of strategy

As the masses call for Bheki Cele’s return, Mondli Makhanya ponders the practicalities

In his farewell press conference after being sacked as national police commissioner, Bheki Cele had a word of advice for his successor: “Love the police.”

He tried hard to be graceful towards Riah Phiyega – who had been appointed a day before – but couldn’t help throwing in a line about how much the job had meant to him.

“I wish the new police commissioner the best of luck. Remember, she did not steal my job. She answered the same call I did three years ago. The only thing worth obsessing about is the safety of our people?...?I will miss the police as an organisation. I believe the police will miss the maverick Cele,” he said.

With that, he donned his cowboy hat and rode off to KwaZulu-Natal to revive his political career and plot his fightback against what he believed was a politically motivated ouster. He was determined to use his time in the political wilderness to prove he is indispensability and ensure the public did not forget him.

In the past fortnight, Cele reclaimed that centre stage of the national conversation. Or had the centre stage been thrust upon him? In the aftermath of Orlando Pirates and Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa’s death, national outrage about the crime rate soared.

South Africans were angry. They felt vulnerable and desperate. In that moment of outrage, vulnerability and desperation, they turned to the man who had for three years given them the feeling that the criminal element could be pushed back. They demanded Cele’s return.

Cele, of course, was on hand to lap up the adulation. For a week, he forgot his job was to look after stuff that swims in water and grows out of the soil.

He was at the side of the family and the famous, providing physical and emotional support.

The media loved it and the public loved it.

During one of the most violent service-delivery protests in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, in February 2011, then national police commissioner Bheki Cele arrived in the area to a warm reception from residents who were seeking for calm and order. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

“Bring back Bheki Cele,” the people chanted with their vocal and digital voices.

This week’s appearance at an anti-crime event in Vosloorus was the crowning moment. It was déjà vu as he obliged with priceless sound bites and hot rhetoric.

“Criminals should fear communities. We cannot have cats fearing mice. Criminals are mice and the communities are the cats,” was one that resonated beyond the gathered audience.

His behaviour prompted the question: What game is Cele playing? Is he campaigning to get back his old job? In order to answer these, we would need to go back to Cele’s rise and fall, and rise.

When he was appointed commissioner in 2009 to replace the disgraced Jackie Selebi, he had served as a very effective transport, safety and security MEC in KwaZulu-Natal. It was a portfolio that suited his “action-man” style. His heavy anti-crime rhetoric began at that time.

But his appointment to the police force – at the expense of experienced law enforcement officers – was due more to internal ANC political management than to his policing abilities.

In order to create political space for ANC chairman and incoming premier Zweli Mkhize, the highly popular and ambitious Cele had to be moved out of the province, and the police job was the most senior national job he could get without him feeling somehow sidelined.

He took to it like a duck takes to water, endearing himself to the public and police rank and file. But his popularity was not universal among the top brass, with many questioning his policing knowledge and grasp of basic management disciplines.

His hogging of the public spotlight also earned him an enemy in then police minister Nathi Mthethwa. What complicated their relationship even further was that in the ANC family, Cele was Mthethwa’s senior, with an exile and prison pedigree as well as many more years in the party’s decision-making structures.

By the time the property leasing scandal brought him crashing down, he had also made enemies with human rights groups with his militarisation of the police and his bulldog language. He is widely blamed for creating the culture that led to reckless and brutal police behaviour.

But he is credited with bolstering police morale and increasing public confidence in the force. Even if the results on the ground were not stellar on his watch, a significant dent was being made and his hard talk made South Africans sleep slightly sounder at night.

His not-so-subtle comeback campaign is aided by the utter ineptitude of his successor. Like Cele, Phiyega was a civilian imposed on the police by political principals.

But unlike Cele, she was an inarticulate lightweight who had a decent career in the corporate world. Since coming into office, Phiyega’s underlings – who have zero respect for her – have trampled all over her with muddied boots.

Her blunders and embarrassing performances on important public platforms have reduced whatever standing she had before coming into office. Public confidence in the police has decreased and the sense of helplessness in the face of crime has increased.

And that is why the masses are chanting “Bring back Bheki Cele”.

But is there any chance he could get his old job back? Highly unlikely. An increasingly paranoid and insecure President Jacob Zuma will certainly not want someone he distrusts and whom he cannot control in that position. Cele is such a person.

Would it be a good thing to get him back? The jury is out on this one.

He had his strengths, as has been pointed out above. But he had many blots on his copybook. Besides the manner in which he left, the “might is right” culture he brought in was music to the cops who grew up in the brutal apartheid force. In the three years he spent as commissioner, he reversed a lot of work that had been done in creating a tough but humane police service.

So what will the fruit of his campaign be?

Cele is a cunning strategist and a master of gallery politics. Even though he is playing this game, he is aware that President Zuma will not take him back to Wachthuis.

But he knows he needs to force Zuma’s hand to give him something more meaningful to do. Parcelling out west coast fishing quotas and opening the annual asparagus farmers’ convention cannot be much fun for a man like Cele.

So to those chanting “Bring back Bheki Cele”, you will definitely get him back – just not where you want him or where he would love to be.

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