National police commissioner Riah Phiyega
National police commissioner Riah Phiyega

POLICE commissioner Riah Phiyega has had a rough time in her first six months as South Africa’s top police official, with the Marikana tragedy in August dominating the controversies that have swirled around the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Ms Phiyega became the third person outside police ranks and with no previous policing experience to be appointed national commissioner, in June.

Her two predecessors — Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele — were also political appointments and both left office in disgrace.

Soon after her appointment, Ms Phiyega got into the habit of saying inappropriate things at the wrong time. For example, when asked about her lack of policing experience, she famously responded that one did not have to be an alcoholic in order to operate a bottle store.

After being in office for some two months, Ms Phiyega was faced with the miners’ strike at Lonmin’s mine in Marikana, and once again she distinguished herself through some ill-advised statements. After 34 miners were shot and killed by police in mid-August, she said that intelligence had shown the miners would not end their strike peacefully, and then took full responsibility for the police action on that day.

"The options were weighed and the decision taken that the SAPS needed to protect their members adjacent to the protesters. As commissioner, I gave police the responsibility to execute the task they needed to do," Ms Phiyega said.

A short while later she again shocked SA by saying the police should not feel sorry about the shooting because the "safety of the public is not negotiable. Don’t be sorry about what happened."

Perhaps her darkest hour came when she was reportedly seen laughing and joking as footage of the shooting was screened at the Farlam commission of inquiry. "It was only after screams of horror echoed across the room, as the footage was played without warning, that Ms Phiyega’s humorous demeanour changed to that of an ice queen, blatantly ignoring the wailing families," The Times reported.

She also fell into the trap of blaming the media for having an agenda to demonise the police when responding to the issue of corruption. And she said that the media was hell-bent on portraying the police as corrupt and incompetent, according to Eyewitness News.

When Ms Phiyega was appointed, it was predicted she would struggle to gain the respect of career police officers. Many of her statements in her first six months have been interpreted as an attempt to achieve just that.