A decade ago I was among the few journalists taking tea with Jackie Selebi shortly after he was announced the new police commissioner. He had just flown in from Cape Town and congratulations were pouring in from friends and foes alike.
Selebi was his boisterous self. Everyone thought he was the right man for the job.
It is important to understand the atmosphere at the time. Nelson Mandela, the visionary, had stepped down. Thabo Mbeki, the technocrat, so we believed, had taken over. He would get government firing. After all, he'd been running the country while Mandela pontificated. The mood was positive. The economy, the one area in which the ANC was least expected to excel, was humming. The party had won the grudging respect of even its harshest critics. But crime remained the country's soft underbelly.
Of all the state institutions the new government inherited, the police were always going to be the most problematic. Their practices were outmoded and thuggish. Beating confessions out of suspects was their modus operandi. But crucially they had a fearsome reputation as enforcers of apartheid's oppressive laws. Some now in government had been high-profile victims of police brutality.
The police had to change in line with the human rights ethos of the new constitution. The police force became a service. President Mandela appointed George Fivaz, a career policeman, as commissioner. To streamline its operations and change its culture, Mandela brought in Meyer Kahn, a titan in business, as CEO. The intentions were laudable but the marriage was to dissolve in acrimony.
Enter Selebi. He had proved himself an able diplomat, first as UN ambassador in Geneva, and then as director-general of foreign affairs. The country was deploying one of its most skilful civil servants to deal with one of its most pressing areas. So we thought.
As we munched on the snacks, I asked Selebi whether he would be wearing a police uniform. No, came the answer. I'm not a police officer, he said. I'm a manager. It soon became clear that he had not thought about it. A few months later his torso was bulging from an ill-fitting police uniform, with the obligatory medals decorating his chest. He was a policeman, finish and klaar.
Selebi's tenure was an unmitigated disaster. He left the police in a worse situation than he found it in. He's now wasting away in jail. Or is he? Bheki Cele, his successor, had nothing to commend him to the job, except being seen as capable of watching his keeper's back. He remilitarised the police and brought back the thuggishness of yesteryear. In fairness to Cele, his political masters should have been the ones facing the Moloi inquiry. They're responsible for this misguided appointment.
Riah Phiyega's anointment as the new commissioner implies we haven't learnt any lessons from the two debacles. It is illogical, almost reckless. She's a likable and a capable person, but this is a bridge too far. This job cries out for a career police officer. It would have instilled trust and confidence in the men and women in blue. To argue that there is no-one suitable in the police won't wash. It's an insult to its hierarchy.
Achieving excellence in anything you do is not rocket science. Do the right thing. As a former minister once put it, if you want a job well done, appoint the right people and get out of the way. Skilled or competent people require little supervision. The job gets done. And they make you look good.
But everywhere you look in this country things are falling apart - in schools, hospitals, local government and parastatals. The reason is simple: we continue to appoint the wrong people to the wrong jobs for the wrong reasons. Failure begets more failure.
Only when merit becomes a yardstick in all we do will we stem this steady descent into mediocrity.