Will a real police commissioner please stand up?

2012-06-13 18:47

President Jacob Zuma may have started something when he fired police commissioner Bheki Cele. He’s fired people before but this time the reason is unequivocal – the president thinks the police commissioner is not fit for office.

When Zuma himself was fired as deputy president back in 2005, I was a parliamentary reporter and stood witness to this rather historic moment. President Thabo Mbeki has never fired anyone, not even when people were clearly shown to be unfit for office. So for us in the press gallery this was high drama.

So the morning after the announcement, an ANC MP stormed into our offices and started complaining about the front page of that day’s edition, which stated starkly: “Jacob Zuma fired.”

“Fired is such a strong word,” she said, “he is simply being relieved from his duties to clear his name. And then he’ll be back. So to say he’s fired is taking it too far.”

We heard her out, but then promptly turned to our computers to write the follow-up stories, knowing then already what the MP still had to come to terms with – Zuma would never return to that position. And we all quietly agreed with Mbeki that someone who is on the one side of a relationship proven to be corrupt in court, is probably not fit for office.

Fast forward to 2012. This week Zuma finally told Cele, a comrade who played an important role in getting Zuma to be president, that he is not fit for office. The reason? He doesn’t pay enough attention to the administrative side of his job and therefore signed leases without reading at them properly.

As a citizen one sort-of hoped that Zuma looked up Cele’s track record before he appointed him to be our top cop. After all, he was a former provincial security minister. But this is politics, so of course he wouldn’t be expected to go through three rounds of interviews and a written test. So that’s why the best minister of international relations does not necessarily need to be a seasoned diplomat, and the best minister of education not a teacher.

So if the president fired Cele because he is not fit for office, does that mean everyone else on the management committee of South Africa Inc is?

And this is where I always felt sorry for ministers and top officials – you don’t know why you were appointed in the first place, and therefore you never know why you get fired. You live in constant fear of getting That Call, the one that summons you to the Union Buildings for an urgent meeting with the president where he thanks you for your services and releases you from your duties.

So perhaps the president should have looked into the fitness of office of some of his appointees, while he was in the reshuffling mood of yesterday. Perhaps he should have looked at justice minister Jeff Radebe, who’s legal advice have been less-than-spot-on during his tenure. The extension of tenure of chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, the ill-advised interview of special investigations unit head William Heath, the fitness of office of director-general Menzi Simelane, to name a few.

When he was heading the department of public service and administration, Richard Baloyi never managed to actually produce the improved version of the much-maligned ministerial handbook, but he is still with us, albeit in a different department.

Look at premiers. Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale has most of his administration put under national supervision because the departments were so fatally mismanaged, but he’s still with us. In Mpumalanga traffic cops don’t have cars to do their jobs and officials are routinely killed for political reasons, but premier David Mabuza doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Ironically Cele has been the first police commissioner under whose watch the crime rate has come down, which I imagine was supposed to be his key deliverable.

I hold no brief for Cele, and Zuma’s decision was probably the right one because we can’t afford another Jackie Selebi. But perhaps the fitness for office exercise can be applied with some success across the board.


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