Parliament has backed the acting national police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Johannes Khomotso Phahlane, following a drama-filled day that saw Phahlane’s ex-boss Riah Phiyega suspended while in a meeting with MPs.
President Jacob Zuma caught Phiyega off-guard on Wednesday while she was directing her senior management team to answer MPs’ questions about the SAPS’s performance, including why more than 7 000 dockets in the Free State were closed.
An assistant bent down to chat to her just after 4pm. Phiyega closed her notebook and took her time before walking out without batting an eyelid.
She was whisked through the back passages of the Good Hope chamber at Parliament and left without a word. Later her bodyguard and a woman brought out her handbag and documents.
By then, she was long gone.
It was all done and dusted within 10 minutes. Top police managers were left shell-shocked.
Zuma had been considering Phiyega’s reasons why she shouldn’t be suspended for, among others, misleading the Marikana commission of inquiry since September 28.
Just before 4pm on Wednesday, the Presidency issued a 139-word statement, saying Phiyega had been suspended on full pay with immediate effect.
The Presidency said her suspension was for the duration of the board of inquiry into her fitness to hold office.
Phiyega has insisted that at the time of the Marikana tragedy, she had been in the position for only two months.
Phahlane was the head of forensics in the SAPS before his elevation to the top job on Wednesday.
On the sidelines of the portfolio committee meeting, Phahlane declined to comment on his appointment. “I can’t say anything right now, I am sitting here in the meeting. Let me concentrate here, let us get to the business of the day,” he said.
Phiyega’s suspension was welcomed across the political spectrum, and a policing expert described it as the correct and logical thing to do.
Members of the portfolio committee on police also came out in support of the decision.
Chairman Francois Beukman said: “It’s the correct approach. It’s in the interest of stability in the SAPS that there should be an acting person. We ask the management of SAPS and the 200 000 members of the police to support the acting person.”
DA police spokesman Zakhele Mbhele said Phiyega’s suspension was long overdue.
“Her failings during her tenure have contributed to the decline of the SAPS and affected the service’s ability to provide safety and security to ordinary people in their homes, workplaces and in public,” he said.
Pieter Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus said Zuma had made the right call. But he warned that Zuma couldn’t be exonerated from Phiyega’s failings because he had appointed her despite calls from the opposition to appoint a career policeman or policewoman.
The ANC in Parliament also came out in support of Zuma’s decision to suspend Phiyega as well as appointing Phahlane as acting commissioner.
ANC whip in the portfolio committee Angie Molebatsi said the party would support Phahlane.
The Institute for Security Studies welcomed Phahlane’s appointment. “Phahlane is a highly experienced officer,” said senior researcher Johan Burger.
“The police could have done worse. You have a police officer who has come through the ranks, who is experienced. I’m happy it is him.”
He added Phiyega’s suspension was “not only absolutely the right thing, but also the logical thing” pending a board of inquiry into her fitness for office.
“Any national commissioner of police who stands accused of serious misconduct and worse should be suspended for the duration of whatever disciplinary steps,” Burger said.
Meanwhile, questions have been asked whether Phiyega should take the fall alone.
Many believe others, whom she reported to, should also face the same treatment as hers.
“Why her alone?” they asked.