Drama over a learner’s licence is sparking an all-out war between Police Minister Bheki Cele and national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole.
Adding to the already fractious relationship between the two is Sitole’s suspension on Thursday of one of his five deputies: Lieutenant General Christine Mgwenya, the deputy national commissioner for human resources management.
Mgwenya is understood to be close to Cele and used to be his chief of staff when he was national police commissioner between 2009 and 2011.
Mgwenya was suspended following allegations that she allegedly abused her authority to get her son a learner’s licence at a police driving school in Benoni, Ekurhuleni.
City Press obtained copies of the notice of intended suspension dated March 25 that Sitole signed and sent to Mgwenya, as well as her suspension letter dated April 4.
However, senior security cluster sources told City Press this week that this was a proxy fight in a battle for control of the SA Police Service (SAPS).
They also said Cele was now looking for “any” reason to get rid of Sitole, with whom he has never had a good relationship since he was appointed minister of police in February last year.
The sources said Cele viewed Sitole, a career police officer, as too closely aligned to his predecessor, Fikile Mbalula, for comfort. Sitole was previously the provincial police commissioner for the Free State, Mbalula’s home province.
A state intelligence insider said Cele wanted to have his “own” police commissioner and appeared to favour Mgwenya for the post.
The national police commissioner is appointed by the president, but the police minister has the power to recommend candidates for the position.
The state intelligence insider said Mgwenya appeared to be keen on becoming Sitole’s replacement when the time came. But now “the blue-eyed girl has been suspended”, he said.
Police sources said that Cele’s apparent reluctance to communicate directly with Sitole, and his willingness to communicate via Mgwenya instead, had contributed to the tension.
“Cele has never liked Sitole since his appointment and communicates directly with Mgwenya on crucial police issues, which makes Sitole feel undermined as the commissioner,” said a senior police officer close to Sitole. “Cele wants Sitole gone so that he can appoint someone he can trust.”
However, Cele’s spokesperson, Reneilwe Serero, denied the allegations that Cele wanted Sitole to be removed, saying the minister did not have powers to appoint the national commissioner as this was done at a presidential level.
“Cele and Sitole have a professional working relationship. Cele treats all senior management and that of the SAPS the same as expected,” she said.
SAPS spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said the relationship between Cele and Sitole was “professional in nature”.
But City Press was told by a number of sources that on Thursday, tensions between the two escalated with Mgwenya’s suspension.
Another source said Cele met with Mgwenya on the day she was suspended, and was furious “that Sitole did not inform him about the impending suspension of his former chief of staff”.
A senior police officer said Cele “felt undermined that the commissioner did not inform him before suspending one of the most senior police officers in the police service”.
Serero, however, said Cele had been briefed about Mgwenya’s suspension, “which remains an internal human resources matter”.
In the letter informing her of her imminent suspension, Mgwenya was given four days to make representations as to why she should not be suspended. She did so, but Sitole did not entertain them.
On Thursday, Sitole wrote: “I am satisfied that there is prima facie evidence of misconduct as well as the seriousness of the allegations, as well as the fact that your presence in the workplace (pending the finalisation of the matter) has the potential to compromise the witnesses who informed the decision to suspend you with immediate effect.”
In the letter, he ordered her to “immediately” hand in her appointment certificate, access card and state equipment, including her firearm, laptop and cellphone.
By the time Sitole suspended Mgwenya, the ink was barely dry on a report from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), handed to Sitole on Monday, which recommended that he take disciplinary action against Mgwenya and six other police officers cited as complicit in the violation of traffic laws for an incident that happened at the police’s driving school in September 2017.
In a confidential memorandum, Ipid said it found that the police’s driving school was illegally used to test civilians. It cites another case in which two civilians – one a relative of a supervisor – obtained learner’s licences without even setting foot at the driving school.
The officers involved were dismissed following a disciplinary hearing, and Ipid wanted Mgwenya to be subjected to the same standards.
“Precedents were set of similar misconduct, where an expeditious process was initiated and two members were dismissed. It is therefore expected that this matter be treated as such,” the report reads.
Ipid rules stipulate that Sitole must initiate disciplinary proceedings against Mgwenya within 30 days of receiving the report and inform Cele of this in writing.
Mgwenya and Cele were in a meeting when she was informed of her suspension, and Cele was furious that he had not been officially told. Attempts to reach Mgwenya were unsuccessful.
THE CASE AGAINST MGWENYA
The Ipid investigation found that on September 15 2017, Mgwenya asked Major-General Hendrick Chauke, who heads the in-service police development department in the SAPS’ human resources, to allow her son to undergo a learner’s licence test at the academy.
According to an affidavit he submitted to Ipid, Chauke states that he received a call from Mgwenya “enquiring about the driving testing centre services provided by SAPS Academy Benoni”.
“She enquired if it is permitted for a private person to do their learner’s or driver’s licence at the academy. She indicated she was enquiring on behalf of her son,” he wrote.
When he learnt from his subordinates that it would be possible, he relayed the information to Mgwenya.
On the same day, her son had an eye test and paid for a learner’s licence appointment, scheduled for four days later. According to Ipid, on the day of the appointment he was tested and he passed, whereby he was issued with a learner’s licence.
In the letter informing her of her imminent suspension, Sitole told Mgwenya that this constituted “serious misconduct” and that she was “charged with intention to prejudice or harm the state or undermine the police service for acting in an improper, disgraceful and unacceptable manner”.
Alternative charges include bringing the service into disrepute, and abusing her authority.
Naidoo declined to comment on Mgwenya’s suspension, saying: “We never comment on internal processes in the public domain. The handling of such matters is governed by SAPS regulations.”
Sitole is the first career policeman to be permanently appointed to lead the SAPS since the appointment of George Fivaz in 1995 by then president Nelson Mandela. Since then, the appointments have been political in nature, with former diplomat Jackie Selebi’s appointment in 2000 by then president Thabo Mbeki, Cele’s appointment in 2009 by former president Jacob Zuma, and Zuma’s subsequent appointment of banking and state-owned company board member Riah Phiyega in 2012.
Sitole is widely viewed within the SAPS as a competent national commissioner who is credited with breaking the back of cash-in-transit gangs, and implementing innovative new methods of tackling organised criminal syndicates.