THE LEADING EDGE | ​General Phiyega


Drawing Strength from Diversity

by Shalane van Rensburg

In this article we speak to General Phiyega, South Africa’s first women police commissioner about her new role and what she sees as her priorities in this position.

What were your first thoughts after being offered the challenge of being South African Police Commissioner?  Did you think twice about accepting the position?

In many respects being offered the position was a sobering experience that set off some personal introspection. It was not  something I was expecting and while I was humbled by the offer I also had to look inward and be sure that I could do this.  It gave me cause to reflect on my spirituality and in doing so I remembered David, Jonah and Jeremiah, and the challenges they had to overcome.




I realised that this was a task that I had to undertake and that it was about more than the individual. It’s about the people serving in the South African Police Service (SAPS) and all I was being asked to do is to join them, work with them and ensure our collective energy makes a difference to the way we go about our work.

After I had considered all of this, I sought my husband’s counsel and he assured me that it was something he believed I could do. I then realised that for the sake of South Africa and for all of us living in this country, I should take up the challenge and accept the position.


What about your upbringing has best prepared you for the task of turning around South Africa’s police force?

I learnt a lot of valuable things from my parents, which still influence my actions today. Firstly I learnt about the value of education. Former President Nelson Mandela said that “education is an important differentiator”. It is one of the weapons that we all need, when you have it; you have a powerful resource at your disposal, and if you apply it correctly it will help you achieve success. I grew up in a family where the value of education was cherished and, while we were given the opportunity to study, we were pushed hard to ensure our singular focus was on producing results.


Perhaps the fact that my parents were school teachers has coloured my perception of the value of education. However, I knew from an early age that education is important and that I had to succeed because my parents were providing me with one opportunity to do so, and if I failed, it would affect the ability of my parents to secure educational opportunities for my sisters. This really imprinted on me the importance of striving to succeed in everything that I do. My parents also taught me about the value of a strong work ethic. They set an example for me, not only in their place of employment, but also at home where we did everything together, from painting the house to helping in the garden and even repairing the car with my father.


A spirit of sharing is also something I learnt from my parents. During my childhood we often moved from village to village because my parents were responsible for starting schools in villages that had none. Once the schools were established and additional teachers were brought into the community we moved on. I learnt a lot about community development during this time. Often you don’t realise the positive impact that the assistance you are giving people can have on their lives. I have tried, throughout my working career, to keep this in mind and to help where I am able to. Probably the most important lesson I learnt from my parents is the importance of a values based life, and to respect, appreciate and share what you have. I have always held these principles dear and have strived to make the most of what I have around me. These principles have always served me well and in my new role at the SAPS, this will also be the case.


How do you intend to shield the SAPS from the politicians, or at least keep politics out of things – if that’s at all possible, so that the police force can do its work without fear or favour?

As citizens of the country we go to the ballot and we elect a government. As part of this process we give the government a mandate to develop legislation and policies that can be used to govern the country. To fulfil this mandate, they need departments to give effect to their policies and the police service is one of these departments. At some point, as is the case in any democracy, we may start feeling as a citizenry that a department and its activities are not aligned with what we believe needs to be done and inevitably we start talking about politicisation. To see a government’s activities in its proper context I think we need to start having a conversation as a country, to start determining when a certain action is interference and when it is involvement.  This is a very important conversation we need to have as a country so that we don’t debilitate the functions and the roles of the government that we have elected, and at the same time debilitate the departments charged with the responsibility of performing certain functions.


At this point in time, I am not sure whether we are rightfully challenging the involvement of our government. What I do know is that we need to converse about this as a nation. If we don’t, we will become stunted in our views. All that being said, what I am appealing for from those people that have appointed all 200 000 members of the SAPS is to create an enabling environment for us to do our work. If that is a given, all that remains is for us to understand the mandate the nation has given us, apply our skills, pursue our vision, and make the most of the opportunities that come our way.


You obviously need some time to find your feet in your new role, but what is your top priority?
At the SAPS the singular mandate we have to undertake is keeping South Africa safe and secure.  This means we don’t only have to make South Africans feel secure, they must actually be secure and be comfortable in the knowledge that they can trust us to deliver on our mandate. I am mindful of the fact that there are very different perceptions out there and unfortunately perception can very often be more powerful than the truth.  Therefore it is our duty to work hard to change those perceptions. If we want to be recognised as the type of service where if a community that has run out of water, feels comfortable enough to come to us for assistance, even though it is not our key responsibility. If we want to be heralded as the type of service that South Africans know will act within the prescripts and protocols that have been laid down when a person’s life is in danger, while also being a service that brings effective social and administrative justice to all of our citizens. We are going to have to work very hard at securing the trust of the nation and possibly the best way we can do this is by delivering on our mandate.


It has been said that your business track record should enable you to deal with the SAPS’s budgetary and financial problems. Do you think this is the case?

I certainly think my business skills are going to assist me, particularly because they are portable skills. I have often been asked how I have during the progress of my career managed to handle the switch from transport to maritime, then to banking, from there to development, followed by a stint in consulting and review activities, and now into the police sector. Certain skills sets are very portable; the technical skills are the things that you need to acquire, but the fundamentals of sound organisational leadership remain the same. I am aware of the criticism around my appointment because I have not been drawn from within the ranks of the SAPS. I accept the fact that I may not possess the technical background. However, I am willing to learn what I need to. I also believe very strongly that there are specialists within the SAPS who are qualified to deal with policing challenges.


My duty is to create an enabling environment for them, to ensure that they are trained, their well-being is provided for, that our finances are in order so that they can have the resources they need, that a positive team environment is promoted and that I provide them with inspirational leadership. If I play my part and all the women and men in the SAPS play their part, I have no doubt that, together, we can conquer the challenges that lie ahead and those that follow in our footsteps, will have a very sound basis to start from when we pass the baton to them.


One of the things that is apparent from your media interviews to date is that you embrace the diversity of the SAPS’s police men and women. How do you intend making the most of this diversity and ensuring that the SAPS contributes to nation building as far as possible?

There are multiple dimensions of diversity within the SAPS. We have a wide ranging skills set, with levels of representation from all sectors of society, which in itself is an important element in ensuring that all South Africans feel they can contribute to building our nation. It will also enable us to provide a range of ‘offerings’ in the sense that we cater for policing in a wide range of urban and rural settings within our country. The SAPS is a veritable potjiekos of diversity; it is not a race issue, it’s about a very broad range of expertise and knowledge that we need to bring together in a meaningful way in order to deliver the best service possible.


Is gender diversity reflected within the SAPS?

Absolutely, I have been very happy to see the number of women in the force, particularly at high-ranking levels. At provincial commissioner level, almost 60% of the posts are held by women and there are a number of other high-ranking women in the SAPS. These are encouraging signs for me, because it reflects the fact that the SAPS has embraced diversity at all levels.


How has your life changed since you became Police Commissioner?

How have your family and friends reacted to the news, and perhaps your even busier schedule?I have always led a relatively simple life, so the adjustment to the pace and responsibilities of this position is still something I am getting used. At this point it is probably the little things that I miss the most, like being able to drive myself around. The formality associated with my position and the manner in which people address me accordingly, has also taken some getting used to. I have always simply been Riah Phiyega, but it appears it will be some time before I can go back to that ‘simple’ approach. That being said, with the support of my family and my team in the SAPS, I have no doubt I will soon be fully adjusted.


Any final message to South Africans?

Before I joined the SAPS my own perceptions of the force was not always positive. During my time here my views have changed radically. I have met very warm, committed and beautiful individuals who have the interests of the communities they serve at heart. I therefore want to assure South Africans that your life is in good hands, we have a very committed team that just want to be given the opportunity to work and make a difference. 



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Woodhill Estate | Pretoria |

South Africa

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Tel: +27 667 6623

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