Cele was appointed police minister in February 2018 and his first term ended well with a string of high-profile arrests in cases dealing with political murders in KwaZulu-Natal. Coming on the back of progress in cleaning out the South African Police Service’s top management, the arrests pointed to progress in rebuilding the capacity — and the political will — of the police service to do its job.
But the unravelling of a number of cases, worsening crime statistics and chaotic internal financial controls did not give Cele’s second term, which began when President Cyril Ramaphosa reappointed him in June, a spectacular start. The 2018-2019 police crime statistics released in September show a 3.4% increase in the murder rate and a 4.6% increase in sexual offences, while the total number of crimes, determined as a result of police action, declined by 21.8%.
Irregular expenditure in the police service increased from R33-million in 2017-2018 financial year to R996-million for 2018-2019. That’s an increase of almost 3 000%. Corruption in the service also appears to be at an all-time high. The 2019 Analysis of Corruption Trends Report identified, for the first time, the police service as the most corrupt sector of the public service, outstripping education, health and local government.
In his defence, Cele has had to deal with enormous problems, given the erosion of policing capability and capacity, which took place under his predecessors, in particular, Nkosinathi Nhleko and Nathi Mthethwa, both of whom served as police minister under former president Jacob Zuma.
Johan Burger, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said Cele had inherited a hugely dysfunctional ministry that had been “severely damaged” under Zuma’s presidency.
“The leadership of the police service had become particularly compromised. Fixing those challenges was always going to be extremely difficult. He is still struggling with leadership difficulties,” Burger said.
Cele appears to have ignored recommendations in the National Development Plan, including the creation of an independent national policing board, which would have assisted in strengthening both capacity and oversight.
Burger said Cele had moved away from the “laager mentality” of Mthethwa and Nhleko and had been actively working with civil society since February last year.
Although Cele had been strong on announcing his successes, including the pre-election arrests, he had failed in terms of follow-up. Other key failures had been allocating sufficient resources to forensic services and a general inability of the procurement section to deal with logistics effectively. Internal controls over firearms and ammunition continue to be poor, with big losses of both reported to Parliament this year.
New appointments to the Hawks and Crime Intelligence, where General Peter Jacobs has now taken over, are steps in the right direction. But the erosion of skilled personnel in both areas means that swift results from either are unlikely for some time.
Cele has an incredibly tough job ahead of him, but he took the role and has to deliver. People will continue to die and be sexually assaulted if he doesn’t.