Stand-off between Cele, Sitole could lead to constitutional changes in appointment of top cop

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Police Minister Bheki Cele and national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole.
Police Minister Bheki Cele and national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole.
Jaco Marais/Gallo Images
  • A panel of experts recommended constitutional changes to the appointment of a national police commissioner.
  • There is a strained relationship between Bheki Cele and Khehla Sitole.
  • The panel found the "opaqueness" of Cele and Sitole's relationship could have led to a communications breakdown before and during the July unrest.

The stand-off between Police Minister Bheki Cele and national police commissioner Khehla Sitole may bring about constitutional changes to how the nation's top cop is appointed.

A panel of experts appointed to probe the reasons behind the July 2021 unrest recommended to President Cyril Ramaphosa that the appointment procedure of the national police commissioner, as set out in the Constitution, may need to be changed.

READ | July unrest: KZN police commissioner didn't want to work with army, Mapisa-Nqakula

In December, Cele laid the blame for the police's failure to anticipate and deal with the July unrest squarely at the door of Sitole.

In their assessment, the panel, led by Professor Sandy Africa, found the "opaqueness" of Cele and Sitole's relationship may have led to an apparent breakdown of communication before and during the July unrest.

On Monday, Ramaphosa authorised the release of the panel's report.

The report read: "The appointment procedure of the national police commissioner, as set out in the Constitution, may need to be changed. The attempts in legislation to try and delineate the powers of the police minister from those of the commissioner, while commendable, have introduced some confusion over the years.

GRAPHIC | #UnrestSA: Counting the cost of rioting and looting

"We were informed that whether the relationship between a minister and a commissioner works depends on the individuals occupying the posts. This is clearly untenable and, if it requires closer scrutiny of the process leading to the appointment of the national commissioner, this should receive urgent attention.”

According to the panel, it does not "seem altogether clear" the relationship in law between the national police commissioner and the police minister.

People carry goods as they loot and vandalise the Lotsoho Mall in Katlehong township, east of Johannesburg.

The panel found that the unrest took the police, who were inadequately prepared, by surprise. It left them flatfooted - and, with "crowd control equipment" running dry, they could not adapt their tactics.

It found there had been a failure of the relevant state institutions to conduct timely risk assessments, despite the constant attacks on the authority of the state by some individuals and organisations.

READ | Police, intelligence failed to stop July unrest - but executive also to blame, report finds

Another damning finding was that there was a significant intelligence failure to anticipate, prevent or disrupt the planned and orchestrated violence.

The panel found the lines between the executive authorities and the security services seemed blurred.

Furthermore, the panel said the differences in opinion between Cele and Sitole about whether the police did enough to prevent the violence indicated there was no agreement on the capacity of police "at the very top".

An elderly woman screams as she is arrested by a police member following looting and vandalism at the Lotsoho Mall in Katlehong township, east of Johannesburg.

"This is a matter of great concern. For the minister to come out publicly saying [the] SAPS could and should have prevented this violence has major consequences, in particular, because people died, others were injured, and properties were destroyed. That statement alone can expose the state to major claims.

"On the other hand, the national commissioner of police cannot just throw his hands in the air and state that the police were overwhelmed. There will be instances in the future where large numbers of people come out to protest," the report read.

Cele's broken relationship with Sitole was detailed in a stinging 26-page affidavit prepared for the SA Human Rights Commission's hearing into the July unrest.

Cele had accused Sitole of incompetence and denounced his (Sitole's) entire management and the Crime Intelligence division for failing to gather intelligence, and to provide him with a threat and risk assessment.

Sitole's woes stretch back to January 2021 when North Gauteng High Court Judge Norman Davis found he and his lieutenants flouted their duty as police officers by waylaying corruption investigations.

He found Sitole - alongside deputy national police commissioners Francinah Vuma and Leonard Tsumane - had breached his statutory duty in terms of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) Act.

Davis ruled the three had effectively blocked a string of corruption investigations that were spearheaded by the police watchdog.

READ | Still no indication whether top cop Khehla Sitole will be suspended - Bheki Cele

Among the investigations was a probe into an aborted attempt by the police to splurge R45 million on a spying device - known as a "grabber" - at a staggeringly inflated price, on the eve of the ANC's 2017 Nasrec elective conference.

IPID investigators alleged the purchase was merely a cover to launder money, so as to buy off voting delegates and swing the outcome in favour of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

For three years, Sitole, Vuma and Tsumane refused to hand IPID the documentation relating to the grabber procurement.

Ramaphosa had also signalled an intention to suspend Sitole, while a board of inquiry probed his fitness to hold office.

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