By Valencia Talane
There’s a new sheriff in town in the Western Cape, and it is not the criminals who should be worried, but slacking, incompetent police officers. Six years after he was removed from his position as the country’s chief of state prosecutors, Vusi Pikoli is settling into his new role as the province’s police ombudsman, the first office of its kind in the country.
The former national director of public prosecutions, who headed up the now defunct Scorpions unit, says he remains passionate about the criminal justice system, having gained over two decades’ worth of experience.
Pikoli took office in December last year and is expected to set up a team comprising investigators, support and administrative staff during his five-year term as ombudsman. “Members of the public who have complaints against the police insofar as police inefficiency is concerned, will report to the office of the ombudsman,” he told Corruption Watch in an exclusive interview on the eve of his taking up office.
Most importantly, Pikoli envisages the office helping to restore good relations and trust between communities and the police.
Police ombud vs IPID
But is this not a duplication of the work already being done by the Independent Police Investigating Directorate (IPID)?
“Not so, because IPID deals more with issues of policy and misconduct. They investigate, say, the deaths of members of the public in police’s hands or in custody, or police being responsible for the deaths of certain people and all that. So it’s more targeted.”
The police ombudsman’s office, he added, will assist people who are not getting proper service from police stations when they go to lay charges, for instance. “People who are not being informed about the progress of their cases; issues of missing police dockets; matters that have been withdrawn in court for whatever reason, whether the police failed to subpoena witnesses or inform them or even make travel arrangements for witnesses to go to court, or outstanding DNA issues from the labs, which would then result in matters being withdrawn.”
Pikoli’s scope on matters of police efficiency was broadened by his involvement in the Khayelitsha Commission that investigated the effectiveness of police in the fight against crime in the area. He and former Constitutional Court judge Kate O’Regan were commissioned by the Western Cape government to carry out the investigation, which revealed damming results in a comprehensive report released in August last year.
“There will be those challenges, firstly of setting up the office and secondly of having to investigate the complaints against the police on issues of efficiency, and the question of trust and relations between the communities and the police,” said Pikoli of his new role. “This is not confined to Cape Town. It covers the entire province of the Western Cape.”
Building relations and improving service delivery
Ewald Botha, the spokesperson for the MEC of safety and security, Dan Plato, said the office of the ombudsman was made possible through the Western Cape Community Safety Act, which is aimed at improved policing service delivery and building relations between the public and the police.
“The provincial ombudsman is legally mandated to investigate complaints from the public about police inefficiency and/or the breakdown in relationship between the police and the community.”
He added that the regulations that will govern the work of the ombudsman’s office are open for public comment until the end of January and stipulate:
- How and where complaints can be submitted;
- How complaints received must be processed by the ombudsman;
- How the ombudsman must notify both the complainant and any other organs of state involved of the investigation;
- How investigations must be conducted and recorded; and
- The method of resolving complaints.
Pikoli asserts that the establishment of the office is about restoring the principles of the country’s Constitution. “The powers of the province insofar as exercising oversight on the police, ensuring accountability on the part of the police…are contained in the Constitution under sub-section 206.”
The office’s size and capacity will depend on the numbers of complaints, explained Pikoli. “At the end of the day there’s also a requirement on the part of the ombudsman to write an annual report, which the provincial minister of safety and security will then submit to the provincial legislature.”
Botha said Pikoli was by far the best man for the job. “[Advocate] Pikoli’s qualifications and experience make him a great asset to the office of the Ombudsman.
“He worked closely with the SAPS and the community of Khayelitsha while serving on the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry and therefore has developed a very detailed understanding of various policing issues and has also developed relationships with various key safety role-players in the province.”
Positive and negative reaction
The news of his appointment has not been without criticism, particularly ANC politicians in the Western Cape. A member of the legislature for the party, Pat Lekker, described Pikoli’s appointment as “nothing else but a sycophantic reward for the services rendered in the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry".
She was quoted by Business Day Live as saying: "Impartial human resource processes were flouted with a justification that appointment powers are said to reside with the premier … does this mean there is no-one out there who possesses the requisite skills and experience who could have performed this job well, or it is another job creation for friends of the DA?"
Pikoli is unfazed by this. “I don’t want to be dragged into political issues, because obviously there is political rivalry between the ruling party in the Western Cape and the official opposition.
“What is good is that my appointment had to go through the community safety portfolio committee in the legislature, which is a multi-party committee. The appointment itself was approved unanimously, including members of the ANC who are part of the committee. So it doesn’t bother me.”
Pikoli was “nominated as candidate by the premier as is prescribed in the Community Safety Act after consultation with the provincial minister, the provincial commissioner of police and the executive heads of municipal police services,” explained Botha.
“He was then subject to approval by the provincial parliament’s standing committee responsible for community safety. The multi-party standing committee on community safety unanimously supported the appointment.”
Pikoli, who is generally perceived to be independent of political influence in justice circles, is adamant that no amount of criticism against the office will work. “It’s just a question of me having to do what is expected of me. It’s not a political position. The criticism doesn’t bother me.”
Not afraid of a challenge
Pikoli is no stranger to controversy or challenges.
He was removed as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) by former president Kgalema Motlanthe following his decision to charge then-national commissioner of police, the late Jackie Selebi, with corruption. Selebi was an ally of Motlanthe’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who had commissioned an inquiry into Pikoli’s fitness for office after the Selebi matter, prior to being recalled from office by the ANC. Pikoli’s dismissal raised suspicions and caused controversy as the Ginwala commission found in his favour.
According to a City Press article written in 2013, Pikoli’s dismissal marked the beginning of the end of the NPA as South Africans knew it: an organ of independent and transparent standing, led with integrity. A former senior official who had worked under Pikoli’s predecessor Bulelani Ngcuka, was quoted as saying Pikoli’s dismissal “was unfair to him as a person…but also unfair to the prosecutorial services.”
The unit has been plagued by controversy after controversy over the past few years, with media reports hinting at political interference and factionalism within its ranks.
In the same article, Pikoli said that political influence had become “glaring.”
“Politicians must not talk about the impartiality of the NPA yet go on the sides and exert pressure on particular cases,” he is quoted as saying.
With his new role, though, it will be a case of juggling responsibilities for the advocate, as he will continue to sit on the boards of both Corruption Watch and Cricket South Africa. Whether or not he will have to fight off political influence once more in his second oversight role, remains to be seen.