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Bheki Cele's controversial career

Times LIVE | 2011-07-22 00:12:59.0
The stylish faces of the off-duty police commissioner Pictures: THE TIMES and GALLO IMAGES

When General Bheki Cele spoke of the introduction of military ranks to the SA Police Service two years ago, he promised to squeeze criminals until there was zero space left for them.

Two years later, it appears there is zero space left for General Bheki Cele as national police commissioner.

In fact, it seems that it is merely a matter of time before President Jacob Zuma will be squeezed into pronouncing on the future of Cele - a man who stood by him during his corruption trial and whom he had commanded in the ANC underground. But, with the release of two reports by the Public Protector that have damned Cele, Zuma must know that his general has become a liability.

Cele, a trained schoolteacher said to have been instrumental in setting up the National Education Union of SA, had been the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for transport, safety and liaison since 2006 when he was appointed by Zuma to replace Jackie Selebi, against whom corruption charges had been levelled.

A key Zuma supporter during the president's corruption trial, Cele was one of three KwaZulu-Natal MECs who sat in the Durban Regional Court in 2005.

Two years later, Cele was named as one of a group of Zuma supporters waging an "orchestrated campaign" to create a no-go area in KwaZulu-Natal for then president Thabo Mbeki. The claim was flatly denied by ANC members in the province.

In an August 2009 interview, shortly after his appointment, an unnamed ANC activist was quoted as saying: "He respects JZ and would not like to be the one who fails the president."

But already there were criticisms and doubts whether Cele could be a civil servant with the ability to shed the role of politician.

Some opposition parties were openly dismissive of Cele's chances of success, with the DA saying he was not fit for the job.

COPE's Phillip Dexter also commented, saying: "If this appointment is payback for Cele supporting President Zuma in his ascent to the highest office in the land, which can be the only reason for such a disastrous move, then it comes at too high a price for the country."

But Cele vowed to clean up South Africa, saying: "You can't be soft and you can't be moving around kissing crime. You need to be tough because you're dealing with tough guys."

He insisted that his "shoot-to-kill policy" - interpreted as giving police officers a licence to kill criminals - was well within the law.

And, as unapologetic as he was about his interpretation of the law, so, too, was he about what has been criticised as a flamboyant lifestyle.

Known for his love of Panama hats, Cele's wedding last October was a celebration in extravagance.

But, the General's road of outspokeness and flamboyance appears to be at an end.

The Sunday Times' award-winning investigation into Cele's involvement in two lease agreements for police offices with businessman Roux Shabangu last year led the commissioner down a road where he certainly appeared to do what his activist friend from KwaZulu-Natal said he would never do - fail the president.

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