SOUTH AFRICA: South Africa's Corruption-Tainted Police Force gets First Female Chief

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The Guardian
Southern Africa
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Police union 'insulted' by Jacob Zuma's political appointment of ANC member and former social worker

She is a former social worker with a corporate background and diploma from the University of Wales. She is also, South Africans hope, the saviour of the nation's corruption-riddled, scandal-plagued police service.

Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega has been named by President Jacob Zuma as the national police chief, one of the toughest assignments in South African public life.

Although crime rates have gently declined in recent years, they remain vastly higher than in the United States or Europe, with an average of 43 people murdered every day.

Phiyega is the first woman to hold the job, a breakthrough praised by the women's wing of the governing African National Congress.

"We believe having a strong woman at the helm of the police service will bring a renewed focus to overcoming the scourge of gender-based violence, such as rape, which has become a growing concern across the country," said ANC spokesperson Troy Martens.

But the new police commissioner faces a battle on her own doorstep that could prove no less intractable: to clean up the image of an institution that has come to symbolise the deflated expectations and tainted polity of democratic South Africa.

Before 1994 the police were brutal enforcers of the apartheid state, most notoriously when opening fire on unarmed protesters in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and 1976 Soweto student uprising. The demise of white minority rule and election of Nelson Mandela required a deft transition in the security forces.

Like her two predecessors, Phiyega has been criticised for lacking any policing experience.

She holds qualifications including an MA in social sciences from the University of Johannesburg and a postgraduate diploma in business administration from the University of Wales.

Phiyega began her professional career as a social worker and has worked for child welfare organisations, as well as the state-owned transport enterprise and Absa bank.

Her appointment was condemned on Wednesday by the South African Police Union.

"We were of the opinion that the president would [have] learnt that non-police officers have not made any good national police commissioners," said its general secretary, Oscar Skommere.

"The continued imposition of others in the top SAPS [SA Police Service] office is not only an insult to tens of deserving officers, but it also demoralises them."

Johan Burger, a former high-ranking officer who is now a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said: "The fact it's a woman doesn't matter much. Over the past decade women in the top ranks is nothing new … including two out of five deputies. To me it's an absolute irrelevance.

"The real question is whether someone who has no background in policing and the police as an organisation will be able to establish themselves to deal with the many difficulties the police have both internally and externally.

"Her appointment is a vote of no confidence in the senior police management. There are many good, honest and hard-working officers in the senior ranks, and this is a slap in the face. It's humiliating to have someone brought in from outside."

Burger accused the ANC of appointing police commissioners on the basis of allegiance to the party rather than their ability to fight crime. "Part of the problem was the need to transform; it came at a price. They decided the only way they could control the police was to appoint someone from the ranks of the ruling party rather than the police itself.

"It's wasn't even about race: there were some very talented and experienced black and coloured police officers but they chose to appoint someone from the governing party. Once you appoint them, then they make similarly poor appointments."