National police commissioner Mangwashi Phiyega announced that she was taking investigating officer Hilton Botha off the Oscar Pistorius case after it emerged that he faces seven attempted murder charges for a 2011 shooting incident. In his place she appointed Lieutenant-General Vineshkumar Moonoo, the most senior detective in the SAPS, who will liaise with the Gauteng provincial commissioner. Though extraneous to the Pistorius case, her reaction to the Botha affair may have revealed where the policeís biggest concern lies: poor PR. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
After a bruising day at the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing on Wednesday, the investigating detective Hilton Botha has been removed from the case by the national commissioner Mangwashi Phiyega. In his place, the team will now be led by the most senior detective in the country, Lieutenant-General Vineshkumar Moonoo, the divisional commissioner for detective service. Phiyega made the announcement at the South African Police Service (SAPS) academy in Pretoria West on Thursday afternoon, after defence advocate Barry Roux hauled Botha over the coals for the investigation he carried out following the death of Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day at the hands of Pistorius.
The presiding magistrate Desmond Nair is due to make a ruling on Pistorius’ bail application on Friday morning.
Botha is facing seven charges of attempted murder, all relating to an incident in 2011 when he and his colleagues shot at a minibus taxi that had passengers in it. His case is due to begin in May.
How Botha came to investigate the case to begin with seems to be a matter of old-fashioned incompetence, as it has emerged that the National Prosecuting Authority knew as far back as 4 February that the detective was going to face charges. Yet the police were only informed of this on Wednesday, according to Phiyega.
“The leader of the team is the top detective in the SAPS. He will be collaborating with the Gauteng provincial commissioner [Lt-Gen Mzwandile Petros] to put together a formidable team to do this job,” she said on Wednesday.
The SAPS were always aware of Botha’s case, she said, but since the charges were provisionally withdrawn against him in 2011, the police did not remove him from active duty.
In October 2011, Botha and his colleagues fired at the tyres of a fleeing minibus taxi in Mpumalanga. Since it had occupants in it, the officers were charged with attempted murder. The NPA dropped the case to conduct further investigations, and the police decided to leave it there too, at the time. The state has now completed its report and Botha’s charges have been reinstated.
Phiyega said that it was not police protocol to charge someone without charges being brought against them. “Botha is still a member of the South African Police Service and is still working. We are pursuing the matter through the [correct] department and will decide what to do [in terms of Botha’s status as a serving police officer] once our investigation is complete,” she said.
So far, the state’s case against Pistorius (prosecutors are arguing that Steenkamp’s death was premeditated murder) has rested on Botha’s findings and his interpretation of them. It didn’t go well for him under cross-examination from Roux on Wednesday. He was forced to repeatedly concede that he was negligent (for example, he didn’t check to see if Steenkamp had two cellphones) or was called out for tendering evidence on things he couldn’t possibly have witnessed.
A confident Roux wrapped up his client’s bail presentation by saying: “Botha is not a credible witness... If you don’t know, don’t tender evidence.
“The poor quality of evidence presented by chief investigating officer Botha exposed the disastrous shortcomings in the state’s case.”
However, Roux said to The Star that he did not believe the sudden decision to remove Botha from the Pistorius case was about his disastrous performance on the stand. Phiyega told journalists that she thought Botha was a capable officer, but was removed from the case because he had his own one to answer, now.
None of this would have received the attention that it has if Botha was not the officer conducting the initial investigation and testifying in the bail hearing of what could turn out to be the murder case of the decade. With international attention focused on a small magistrate’s court in Pretoria, any mistakes made by anybody are immediately relayed around the world.
It is the timing of the Botha charges that has raised a stink. On that count, the police claim to have played a straight bat. They had no legal reason to stop Botha from performing his duties, and therefore let him. When a reason was furnished, they took him off the case. It was the NPA who apparently sat on that subpoena notice for 17 days before delivering it to the police.
The NPA said on Thursday that it was happy Botha had been taken off the case.
Is there something else going on, though? Phiyega brought Moonoo to the press conference, as well as other senior police officers, including Hawks boss Anwar Dramat – just to announce that an investigation was being handed over to another detective? Have the police realised that Botha’s continued involvement in this case would prove embarrassing?
The police have not had great press in recent, major news events. In the Anni Dewani murder case, former police commissioner Bheki Cele infamously called murder accused Shrien Dewani a monkey. Then, of course, there is the Marikana massacre, in which the police shot and killed 34 striking miners in August last year. Phiyega did not enjoy questions about the police’s apparent poor track record in big cases. Even though the Pistorius case is only in the bail application hearing stage, Botha has not exactly covered the SAPS in glory.
Could the NPA have handed Phiyega an excuse to remove the awkward Botha and put in the most senior detective possible, working with commissioner Petros? Putting Pistorius away would go a long way in reinstating faith in the police, especially as public opinion (if tweets are anything to go by) is currently against him.
When this was put to Phiyega, she denied that Botha’s performance was the reason for her actions, and heaped praise on the SAPS.
“There is nothing embarrassing for us,” said Phiyega.
“We are continuing and putting our best foot forward. In my opinion, the SAPS is a very good (police) service which can stand its own against other services in the world,” another statement that is unlikely to stand the test of time. DM
Photo: Investigating officer Hilton Botha, the lead detective in the Oscar Pistorius murder case, sits in court during a break in court proceedings at the Pretoria Magistrates court, February 21, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings