Inside the mind of Riah Phiyega

Ryland Fisher looks at General Riah Phiyega’s short but eventful stay at police headquarters.

Riah Phiyega was less than two months into her job as national police commissioner when the Marikana massacre took place. She had been appointed in June 2012, and the massacre came in August. But this incident will define her legacy and in effect invalidate whatever good work she has done since.

It appears Phiyega may be out of police headquarters sooner or later.

President Jacob Zuma has informed her of his decision to institute a commission of inquiry into her fitness to hold office, in line with the recommendations of the Marikana commission. Zuma has also asked her to convince him why she should not be suspended while the probe takes place.

She is following the same unceremonious route as her predecessor, Bheki Cele. Cele was asked why he should not be suspended while an inquiry into his fitness to hold office got under way. He was suspended and would not return to police headquarters. He was axed.

It looks highly unlikely that Phiyega will survive Zuma’s chopping board. The Marikana commission’s report, released by Zuma on June 25, was damning about her and the SAPS. Among other damning findings, it found that the police’s plan for dispersing the crowd of striking miners was defective.

It also called for an investigation into Phiyega’s fitness to hold office and into the then-North West Commissioner, Zukiswa Mbombo, who retired at the end of June.

Judge Ian Farlam also recommended that the National Prosecuting Authority probe the police’s actions to determine if there had been criminal liability.

Once Zuma made the commission’s findings public, it was clear Phiyega’s days were numbered – and that she could leave the police as controversially as she had come in.

Phiyega’s appointment was controversial, not only because she had no policing experience, but because she was a woman, and a black woman at that. Her appointment, in an environment dominated by men, and until recently white men, was always going to be a risk for Zuma, who appointed her.

But her managerial skills had been proved in several high-profile corporate appointments.

That Phiyega is sensitive about her status as a black woman was illustrated by the SMS she sent to Dianne Kohler Barnard, DA spokeswoman on police, and which landed her in another media storm this week.

In the SMS, Phiyega said: “I am black, proud, capable. Get it clear, you can take nothing from me and eat your heart out. I am not made by you and cannot be undone by you.”

In many ways, Phiyega has been her own worst enemy. It is difficult to know how many of her actions with regards to the media are guided by advisers or whether she acts on her own.

I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with her recently, including at a conference on the National Development Plan (NDP), where she took part in a panel discussion I chaired, and interviewing her for two hours for a publication on the NDP, produced by Topco Media.

In all my interactions with Phiyega, I’ve been impressed by her commitment to her job and the transformation project she has undertaken in the police service, something that, if it were not for Marikana, might have seen her being remembered as having been a great leader of the police.

I interviewed her at her office in Pretoria in June. Although I was meant to speak to her only about the NDP, I got in a few questions about other things, such as her views on being a woman in a male-dominated environment, and how her family related to all her pressures.

Phiyega started by telling me why, although she was born Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega, everybody called her Riah.

“‘Ria’ is the last part of Victoria. Where I come from you are named after somebody and it’s a prescribed process. When you are the first boy in a family, your first son would be named after your grandfather and so on. We are all girls in the family and I am the second-born. I’m named after my father’s aunt.

“If my father had his way, he would probably have chosen short names because he believes that those names are successful. For instance, my sister is Abigail and we call her Abi. My other sister is Matilda. We call her Tilly. ‘Ria’ comes from Victoria, but my dad said I must put in the H and then it becomes Riah.”

Phiyega said her appointment had taken her by surprise.

“It was an industry I never thought I would be in. I didn’t have colleagues in this industry. But I had a conversation with the president. I listened to what he had to say and I realised that he had done his homework.

“The president said we had good policing skills in South Africa, but we needed to look at a revolution that was not yet complete. (The SAPS) was integrated 20 years ago, when 11 entities were brought together under General George Fivaz. A lot of work had been done to integrate the police, but one of the things that had not completely been done was to look at the change in management processes of building a SAPS with a new culture.

“We needed to define that culture and ensure that the administration and management went along on that journey.

“I understood we had good policy, but we needed to assist the organisation with that transitional process of bringing into the police governance, administration, management, building a common culture and seriously embedding the gains we had made over the past two decades.

“I think the president had looked at those qualities. He looked at where I had been and what I had done, and thought I could do the same in the police. I’m simply a director-general of this organisation. The national commissioner is the director-general of the police and has to administer and manage the environment.

“We have moved into a structure that is starting to show that there is the core business of the police, which is policy, and the resource side, which is sitting in our resource management administration.

“Then there’s the corporate side of policing, which is looking at how we’re managing our people, our strategy, our legal matters and so on. We are not short of people who know how to police. They are there, they have the capability, and they are leading.

“There is perhaps a disjuncture in the conversations that are taking place in the public. The success of the police will always depend on a good director-general who must administer the organisation and allow the core business of the organisation to be run by those who know how to police.

“But the director-general should also ensure the core business, the management and the administration of the organisation, are well-blended.”

Phiyega did not experience resistance to her appointment at the time.

“I experienced an organisation that had a need to do particular things. My attitude was that I’m not coming here to impose myself.

“There’s a serious mutual process. I was coming to learn. I had my own skills set. I was bringing something to the organisation and I was going to learn a lot from the organisation too. If you are a general manager and you have those skills, you can take them anywhere. They are portable. Tomorrow you can put me in any other organisation. When I get there, I learn what the business is about and I bring in my management skills.

“I had something to share with the organisation and I had a lot to learn in terms of the business of the organisation. That is why I didn’t find resistance. They were willing to work with me and to walk me through the organisation, and I was willing to share with them, to look at how we could shape our business.”

At first, however, Phiyega did feel uncomfortable as a woman.

“This is a completely different matter. Now we are talking about transformational issues. Being the first black woman to lead this organisation after a period of 100 years was never going to be easy. I mean, we’re talking about the boys. I didn’t play golf with them. I didn’t go with them to the pub.

“Some of them probably found it difficult to engage me in an unconventional and informal manner.

“It was a learning process for the organisation as well as for myself, to navigate an environment that is so male-dominated and male-oriented. Because of my management skills, I was able to put gender aside. I was able to work with people.”

Phiyega said special epaulettes had to be created for her uniform.

“The women’s ones are very short and because they had never had a woman general, they had to go and create special ones. There are a number of things that one is piloting. If another woman becomes a general, they must find we have paved the way.

“The men in the police service have had to become used to gender issues. All I needed was for them to see a woman could do it. One of my commitments is that I will get through my term to show it can be done. It’s not a gender issue.

“The other issues around this transformation are the introduction of new management processes and building a new governance approach. Some people find it difficult to adapt to your approach in managing the organisation.”

A lot of progress had been made in the police service by the time she became commissioner. She did not have to bring in her own people.

“When I joined, the organisation had 10 years of unqualified audits. That in itself tells me a story about the organisation. Something was going right. I came into an organisation and said I wanted to look at crime performance. I looked at it, found them to be doing it year on year, and said I wanted us to do a longitudinal analysis.

“When you do a longitudinal analysis, you see crime has been coming down. There are problem areas, but when you average the trends over the past 10 years crime has been coming down steadily.

“There were steeper declines at the beginning because they were coming from a high base. Now you are starting to see lower, marginal declines. That made me believe something was going right and there were people in the organisation we could use to advance our strategy going forward. My plan was to discover this capacity in the organisation and look at how we could create a platform for sustaining this success.

“For instance, provincial commissioners have a term of five years, which can be extended for another five years. Some of them are in their second term. Succession becomes a reality. We could have gone out and looked, but we decided to find the capacity in the organisation to build a new team.

“I’m planting and I hope when we finish the planting season there will be those who continue watering and tending whatever plants we have planted. My approach has been to start building a team, using internal SAPS people, and it’s really yielding (results).

“We have just appointed six lieutenant-generals, all from inside. They are good people and I can see that it is taking the organisation in the right direction. We will start seeing a strong SAPS that supports all those good qualities that I found within the organisation.”

Phiyega said the media tended to focus on the negative. “There are so many positive things happening in the police, but the narrative that one sees in the media says something else. Policing is one of the highly contested areas and justifiably so, because it’s an environment that is imbued with a lot of constitutional powers. We can disenfranchise you.

“Everybody is concerned about how we use that power and you then have an avoidance attitude by society. When people are in trouble, they want police, but when they are not, they want to look at the police to see what they are doing. You never have a comfortable relationship in terms of views, attitudes and perceptions of the police.

“Being aware of that, we can do better. We should do better by starting to ask what it is that we should do to ensure that the community understands what we are doing and appreciates the successes we are having. They should be allowed to criticise us because it is through that criticism that we are going to grow. We have to ensure that we build a good, solid communication platform. I know I’m being chastised for appointing a lieutenant-general to be in charge of communication. But with the nature of the reputation that we have, with the narrative that is out there, you can’t do otherwise.

“When I came into the police three years ago, there were many stories in the media without comment from us. The attitude was that there were too many things on which to comment. We have gone through a structured process, which means that we must be in the press, but for the right things. When you watch TV today, they’ll tell you about the fact that we’ve arrested people. They will tell you about the success that has taken place.

“We are now deliberate in what we are taking out there, but the culture of vilifying and talking ill of the police has not stopped.

“All we are doing is saying people should also see the work we are doing as the police. In terms of the criminal intelligence issues, we have done a lot and there are no new stories coming out there.

“But, in terms of the media, it is always a replay of Mdluli, Mdluli, Mdluli. Those political nuances and stories, about the politics of policing, are being continued over and over again.

“In terms of the restructuring, there are probably people who are feeling left out. You will never agree with everybody in terms of how you shape and position the organisation. There will be some stories in the media relating to that. Some people are feeling unhappy, some people feel that things should go this way or that way.

“The police, the National Prosecuting Authority, and the Hawks are platforms that people have interest in and they want to control those. If you have people who are solid in terms of where they’re taking these organisations, you’ll always find some people have issues.”

Phiyega said she was comfortable in her position.

“I’m very okay and I think this organisation is going somewhere. There are many police in this organisation who are working hard, who are focused.

“We’re being short-changed by this crafted narrative that circles on these few negative things. The reality is that, if indeed, the negative narrative was happening, South Africa would be on its knees.

“You can give us Malamulele (in Limpopo, whose residents staged protests early this year, demanding a separate municipality), De Doorns (in the Western Cape, where farmworkers went on strike in 2012) or Marikana, give us whatever, this country will not be on its knees because there are hardworking policemen and women.

“In the past three years, we have made so many arrests, whether it has been with regards to mall robberies or cash-in-transit heists. We have arrested big criminals such as Radovan Krejcir. We made a decision that we will not allow this man to continue. We will arrest him.

“He has been in jail for more than a year. I don’t think he ever thought that this service could put him in jail for a year. He had (allegedly) corrupted so many of our police (officers) and we’ve cut through all those things. This is why we’ve arrested our own with him to say, ‘You will stand there and account for what you have done’.

“I am worried about the negative narrative. But it is okay, I think the truth will vindicate whomever it vindicates.”

Phiyega said she had lost friends since becoming police commissioner, but her family had stood by her.

“I hope that by the time I have finished, some of my friends will still be there. I have caused damage to my family relations because it’s a consuming role. I have a very supportive husband. I know that I’m probably affecting all of them, but they are supportive and I think they’ve become policified, too, if there is such a word. We can now have discussions about the police.

“Being commissioner is not the type of role that leaves you space for other things. It is a jealous road. It consumes you almost completely.”

Phiyega said she hardly had time for anything outside police work.

“If you have a day of doing nothing, it feels like you have had a long weekend. If you can just wake up and not do anything until one o’clock, be at home, you feel like you’ve had an entire weekend.

“I don’t think leave exists in the police. I was looking at our target for members to take leave.

“Ten days a year is compulsory. We are not able to put it at 100 percent. We’ve said at least if we can achieve 65 percent, it will be good.”

About the media

The media do not have an appetite for good stories, so we have to force ourselves into their space. They don’t have an appetite for the things that I’m telling you. Yet we continue to tell them and invite them,” says National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega.

The media were recycling stories about her.

“One relates to Marikana, and you will find a lot of other historic issues. You will find stories related to (former crime intelligence head Richard) Mdluli. You will find issues related to the transformational journey we are taking, including the changing of structures and people.

“You may see stories related to (suspended Western Cape police commissioner Arno) Lamoer, which also has to do with crime intelligence. Any time you read a story about the national commissioner, it will be related to all those issues and then they will throw in that she’s not even a policeman.

“They never talk about the work that we are doing.”


At the time of the interview, the Farlam Commission report on the Marikana massacre had not been released, but national police commissioner Riah Phiyega appeared confident that the police would be vindicated.

“When Marikana happened, I was one month and two weeks in this organisation.

“There’s a whole historic picture about the stories that have been put in the press in terms of Marikana. We have very clear devolved roles and functions.

“In terms of Marikana, one thing I can say is that the police fully co-operated with the commission. We put our side of the story and we are waiting for that report.

“I’m sure it will have recommendations and we’d be willing to implement those recommendations.

“The second thing is that it is a very, very sad incident indeed, and we are looking for processes that will help us to bring in reconciliation.

“We still have a duty to police everybody in the country and there are a lot of lessons that have come out of (the commission) in terms of our operations and all those aspects.” 

(First published in the Sunday Independent, Weekend Argus and Sunday Tribune on 23 August 2015)