Bheki Cele was a better national police commissioner than many realised. This is according to senior security and policing expert at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Dr Johan Burger.

Burger spoke largely about the recent history of the SA Police Service (SAPS), praising Cele along the way.


The seminar focused on the current shake-up of the SAPS under acting national commissioner Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane, who was also at the seminar..

Burger said: “Cele is a strange figure in many ways. Perhaps, this is my own view only, I think – and please excuse me for saying so – he was a much better police commissioner than he was ever given credit for.

“But that’s just me. People blame him for militarising the police in terms of the ranks. It wasn’t him, he was just a commissioner in office when this change happened.”

Burger said it was actually former police minister Nathi Mthethwa who militarised the police, by effectively positioning it as a force rather than a service. Mthethwa brought back military ranks in the SAPS.

Burger said police morale was “extremely high” during Cele’s tenure, resulting in work getting done properly. “He enjoyed the support of [the police],” he said.

“The unfortunate thing for Cele is that he was known more for his unguarded statements. and of course the fact that the public protector did not find in his favour. That was unfortunately the end of him [as police commissioner].”

Cele, now Forestry and Fisheries deputy minister, was sacked as national commissioner in June 2012.

Public protector Thuli Madonsela found Cele’s involvement in deals to acquire police office space was “improper, unlawful, and amounted to maladministration”.

He was succeeded by Riah Phiyega, whose fitness to hold the office is now being investigated by a commission of inquiry. The probe relates to her role in the massacre of 34 striking mineworkers in Marikana in August 2012.

Phahlane is holding the fort during her suspension and driving the police’s “Back to Basics” strategy.

As part of it, police have reopened thousands of old dockets closed “prematurely”, Phahlane told the seminar. In Durban alone this exercise has led to arrests of 51 suspects.

Phahlane appears to be enjoying the support of security experts. After his address at the seminar, Gareth Newham, a security expert at ISS, quipped: “We were always confident that with the correct leadership, SAPS could make great strides.

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