Despite being aware of the situation, President Cyril Ramaphosa has not acted on the so-called cold war between Police Minister Bheki Cele and national commissioner, general Khehla Sitole

Cele has again been accused of interfering in and stalling the restructuring process at the South African Police Service (SAPS), which has seen all its more than 160 000 posts remain officially vacant seven months after an agreement was signed to re-engineer the service. 

In November, unions signed agreement 01/2020 to restructure the SAPS “in order to function efficiently and effectively”. The agreement, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, declared that all police posts would be declared officially “vacant” and would be properly filled by the end of April, excluding the post of the national commissioner, who is expected to implement the plan, and who is appointed by the president. 

However, seven months later, and two months after the deadline, critical posts within the police remain empty as the restructuring process has yet to begin. 

The South African Police Union (Sapu), in an email dated 17 June 2021 sent to Ramaphosa’s office and which the M&G has seen, accused Cele of being the main reason for the delay in implementation, and mentioned the minister’s alleged interference in operational matters. 

“For a minister to patrol beaches during the lockdown and to give operational instructions for arrests to be effected leaves a lot to be desired. As an admitted union to the SSSBC [Safety and Security Sectoral Bargaining Council] of the SAPS, the employer and the admitted trade unions signed a collective agreement in November 2020 wherein the restructuring of the SAPS was agreed within a certain framework. 

“It was [among other things] agreed that most posts in the SAPS will be vacant,” the Sapu email reads. 

The union slammed the delay in the restructuring of the police service, saying this was detrimental to crime-fighting efforts.   

“This is mainly due to the interference of the minister in a purely human resource exercise, wherein the minister has no role to play. As a trade union, we are witnessing the sabotage of a collective agreement that was … entered into between all the relevant role players [that] is now undermined by the minister,” the union added. 

The email was “acknowledged with appreciation” on 23 June by the president’s private office in a reply by Robert Hlongwane. 

Presidency spokesperson Tyrone Seale said: “In the context of the priority given by [the] government to the fight against crime and corruption, as well as our focus in building the capacity of the state, the president engages from time to time with the minister and the national commissioner.” 

The accusations of executive interference come in the wake of worrying crime statistics, which were released by Cele in May, for the first three months of 2021. The minister revealed that an average of 55 people were killed in South Africa a day, and a staggering 106 people reported being raped every day. 

Senior police sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also accused Cele of interference, claiming that morale within the SAPS to fight crime was low due to the “two bulls in one kraal” feud between the minister and Sitole. 

The source’s views of interference by the minister are seemingly underscored by another scathing letter Cele sent to Sitole on 9 June. 

Cele’s letter, which the M&G has seen, riled against the “repulsive and threatening” comments allegedly made by Lieutenant General Johannes Riet, the SAPS’s head of supply chain management, to the police’s chief audit executive, Major General DT Nkosi. 

According to Cele, the comments were made during a meeting on 8 June, when the police’s top brass were discussing the R1.6‑billion that SAPS allegedly blew on procurement for personal protective equipment since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year. 

Cele, in his letter, took issue with Nkosi’s expected move as part of the restructuring process. 

“I expect the national commissioner to intervene and address the intimidating and threatening behaviour of Lieutenant General Riet. In hindsight, the motive behind the transfer [or] placement of Major General Nkosi, under the auspices of the restructuring of the SAPS, is also questionable and it is clear that the restructuring process is being 

used as a punitive measure to neutralise certain individuals and not in the interest of the service,” Cele wrote. 

Lirandzu Themba, spokesperson for the police ministry, said: “The ministry will not comment on an internal communication between the minister and the national commissioner. Matters relating to the presidency should be addressed to the office of the president.” 

This communication followed another unpleasant note Cele sent to Sitole in May, when the minister accused the national commissioner of being an “irresponsible” head. 

In the May letter, which the M&G has also seen, Cele took issue with and blocked nine senior management appointments, which Sitole wanted to make as part of the restructuring process. 

Cele charged that the appointments were against an agreement he had with Sitole that filling of posts would be done with the minister’s “consideration and concurrence”. 

“You, therefore, blatantly ignored my instructions and the provisions of the SAPS Employment Regulations 2018 when you went ahead and announced these appointments. Your disregard for my position as the executive authority of the department of police and relevant regulations is regarded as serious and will not be tolerated,” Cele wrote.  

“Your irresponsible actions further opened the department to possible litigation and disputes.”

But senior SAPS sources said the national commissioner was solely responsible for making appointments, as Sitole was empowered by the SAPS Act to deal with operational matters. 

Section 28 of the Act empowers the national commissioner to make appointments in the police service. 

The national SAPS spokesperson, Brigadier Vish Naidoo, would not be drawn, saying: “The SAPS will not comment on communication between the office of the minister and the national commissioner, or vice versa, in the public domain.”