Sithole unable to recall Phoenix death toll during SAHRC hearing

Sithole unable to recall Phoenix death toll during SAHRC hearing
© Provided by SowetanLive

Embattled national police commissioner Gen Khehla Sitole does not know how many people were killed in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal, during the July civil unrest.

Sitole cracked on Tuesday during his appearance before the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) hearing into the unrest, which saw hundreds of shopping centres, warehouses and factories looted and destroyed, costing the economy about R50bn.

When asked by evidence leader Adv Smanga Sethene about the number of people killed in Phoenix, during an outbreak of vigilante violence at the height of the unrest, Sitole initially stated that he could not provide an answer.

A few moments later after being pressed to respond, Sitole looked up and indicated that 36 people had died in Phoenix.

“At the moment I wouldn’t give you a full report,” Sitole had initially said after unsuccessfully trying to sidestep the question. .

Sethene then charged: “You are looking at it (number) from the screen, someone is assisting you while you are giving evidence… someone is assisting you to tender this evidence.”

He asked Sitole how many of the 36 people that were killed were black or Indian, leading to the police commissioner acknowledging that he was unable to respond to that question “off the cuff”.

“I cannot answer on the spot but it’s contained in the report,” Sitole responded.

Sitole’s future hangs in the balance after President Cyril Ramaphosa asked him to make representations on a notice to suspend him for his alleged role in refusing to hand over information to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate about the procurement of a surveillance device, the grabber, before the ANC’s elective conference in 2017.

The top cop submitted his representations to Ramaphosa about two months ago with the ball now in the president’s court to determine his fate.

Sitole was taken to task at the inquiry on Tuesday about his lack of qualifications after he confirmed that his highest grade was matric, which he completed in 1984 before joining the then KwaNdebele homeland police two years later.

Sethene asked Sitole if he believed that a police commissioner had to have a tertiary education, such as a diploma in policing. The police commissioner said he believed “practical experience” counted more.

When asked by Sethene if he had visited any of the four hotspots in KwaZulu-Natal, including Phoenix and Pietermaritzburg, Sitole said he had “been in KwaZulu-Natal next to Phoenix… but not at Phoenix”.

Sethene accused Sitole of gross dereliction of duty for failing to provide police minister Bheki Cele and Ramaphosa an intelligence report ahead of the unrest.

“It was not a gross dereliction of duty (on my part)… but a shortcoming in crime intelligence,” Sitole retorted.

The police commissioner was further grilled on why he had allowed KwaZulu-Natal provincial police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi to go on family responsibility leave during the unrest when his wife was in hospital to give birth.

Sithene asked Sitole if he was aware of a provision in the police act which gave him powers as police commissioner not to allow leave, especially at a time when the country was burning.

Sitole, however, refused to shoulder any of the blame for the July unrest, which exposed the country’s law enforcement agencies’ lack of intelligence capabilities.

Evidence leader Adv Yanela Ntloko also took Sitole to task about the number of hotspots and the interventions that police came up with to stop the unrest . 

The commissioner conceded that at the beginning of the unrest, there was no intelligence gathered “on the modus operandi”, which made police unable to prevent the unrest.

Independent Policing Union of SA ( president Nephtal Nkuna said Sitole’s weaknesses “were laid bare” for all to see.

“It was proven today that he is not fit for the job, which warrants the commander-in-chief (Ramaphosa) to act and act fast to avoid the continuing decay of the service under his watch,” Nkuna said.

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