Last week, President Jacob Zuma appointed Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega as national commissioner of police and conferred on her the rank of general. She has no previous police experience, but she is no neophyte. She has worked in the public sector (Transnet, the transportation umbrella) and in the private sector, where she was group executive for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) at Absa, one of South Africa’s largest banks. Recently, she chaired a presidential review committee for state-owned enterprises.
A social worker by training, Phiyega has degrees from the University of Johannesburg and the University of Wales. She has also studied business administration at the University of Singapore and at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Police professional organizations, while affirming their loyalty to her, have objected to Zuma’s appointment of a third non-professional as national commissioner of police. One spokesman for the South African Policing Union characterized the appointment as an “insult” to the police force. The Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU)—dominated by white farmers—said her appointment was a “political move” by Zuma.
Zuma removed Phiyega’s predecessor, Bheki Cele, who was commissioner since 2009, until a board of inquiry found him unfit for service because of contracting irregularities. Cele’s predecessor, Jackie Selebi, had also been removed from office and has since been convicted of corruption. Neither Selebi nor Cele were police professionals, and President Zuma has been accused of “politicizing” the police and intelligence services.
Zuma faces a tough fight to retain his party leadership at the governing African National Congress December convention. A major issue in contemporary South African politics is the alleged corruption of his administration. So, like Selebi, Cele had to go. Notwithstanding her lack of specific police experience, Phiyega’s appointment may be popular with the ANC rank-and-file, which has at best an ambiguous view of the police because of corruption and its role enforcing apartheid. On the other hand, South Africa has massive crime problems, with a murder rate that is some six times as high as that of the United States. Under such circumstances, Phiyega’s professional performance will be scrutinized closely by civil and human rights organizations and the South African press.