Phiyega, more dishrag than teabag

How to go from a social worker to the coverer-up in chief of a police massacre.

The first interview with Riah Phiyega I read shortly after her appointment as national police commissioner included her recounting the old feminist cliché about a woman being like a teabag that gets stronger when placed in hot water.

That platitude filled me with little confidence that this former social worker was going to be made of the stuff that would put the likes of George “Geweld” Thomas and Radovan “I’m Just Honest Businessman” Krejcir behind bars.

But she was perhaps right to defend her appointment despite her having no police experience – after all, “the general” can hardly be expected to go out and return fire at bank robbers, scale fences in pursuit of muggers or certify a copy of my ID. No, for all her epaulettes and four completely undeserved clinking medals, the top cop job is about administration and people management, and Phiyega’s track record at private and public sector entities, from Absa through to Transnet, was what got her the nod from the man with two heads who rides his quad bike in Nkandla.

She wasn’t terrible as commissioner. She went for difficult targets. Today, that “honest businessman from Bedfordview” is behind bars, and she is able to justifiably name other policing successes.

Managing the SA Police Service can’t be easy. It’s beset by structural challenges. No police commissioner has finished his (and soon to be her) term since George Fivaz way back in 2000. Incidentally, Fivaz was also the last actual policeman to run the police.

It took just six weeks for Phiyega to find herself in the hot water she asked for. Her officers had decided to circle a group of impoverished mine workers brandishing sticks, pangas and spears on a hill owned by no one, more or less in the middle of nowhere. They had ordered mortuary vans the day before and set about their business of mowing down those men using machine guns. That took care of 17 men. Another 17 were killed while trying to escape the bullets. Herded into a corner at what’s known as Scene 2, some were shot in the back. They were killed in revenge.

It was not the police service’s finest hour. It was among democratic South Africa’s darkest moments.

So what flavour of infusion was released from the General Phiyega teabag on that critical day and the days that followed? By now we know she ordered a clumsy cover-up. She took the side of the cops immediately, before anyone even had all the facts of what had gone down. She was evasive and arrogant on the witness stand at the Farlam commission, which recommended that her fitness to hold office be weighed.

As she rightly puts it, she was new in the job when the massacre happened. She may have been able to escape the blame for Marikana, and there’s no evidence that she ordered any of the killings, but I suspect she made one mistake that snowballed into many others. That mistake was to panic and to do what she thought the higher-ups wanted. Perhaps she thought it’s what President Jacob Zuma wanted. What she did may be a classic example of doing something because you think it’s what your boss wants, instead of because it’s simply the right thing to do. There are many examples of people who stood up to Zuma or others in high office, while standing on a platform called principle, and took whatever pain came their way. The most recent example is Nhlanhla Nene, who was brutally fired, but can today take his pick of top corporate jobs.

So determined was Phiyega to see out her term that she did whatever she thought she had to do to make that possible. And her mendacity is now, ironically, the thing that will see her enter unemployment. And who will be standing in a queue to hire the poor woman now?

She will forever be the coverer-up in chief of Marikana, and that isn’t completely fair. Many other people have far more blood on their hands than her, and they will be allowed to use her as their crimson-stained dishrag to wipe themselves clean.

It’s tragic, but she allowed this to happen the moment she took the side of police officers and ultimately the image of a government that deserved no loyalty.

She may have felt that loyalty is good, and that loyalty is rewarded – just how the Mafia thinks. But we need a top cop with loyalty to the principle of justice alone.