Suspended police commissioner General Bheki Cele’s bid to be exonerated of maladministration and corruption began on Monday as his legal team took his former deputy to task on the first day of public hearings into his role in SAPS lease contracts worth R1.6-billion. By GREG NICOLSON.
The prosecution opened the hearings by claiming witness Lieutenant-General Hamilton Hlela, former police procurement head and deputy national commissioner, would prove Cele “is the one who identified the building” and that “he did not do so openly”. Evidence leader Viwe Notshe, SC, said Cele had distanced himself from the Public Protector’s investigations into the Pretoria and Durban police lease contracts and tried to shift the blame to Hlela. Cele’s high-priced lawyers did just that.
Hlela explained that before Cele started as police commissioner, the offices of the SAPS had been split across 10 different locations in Pretoria and were considered unsafe and dilapidated. Locating new premises was already on the agenda. As head of procurements, he suggested he find a building to lease, but Cele wanted to build new offices to save money. Then, in March 2010, Cele met with Hlela and told him he’d found two floors to lease and someone would call him. It was Roux Shabangu. It was strange Cele changed his mind about leasing, but not improper, said Hlela.
Photo: Former national deputy police commissioner General Hamilton Hlela and head of SAPS procurements said Bheki Cele had identified the building for the controversial Pretoria lease but was grilled by Cele’s lawyers for his role in establishing the contract and forced to concede he had on occasion acted independently. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.
Hlela spoke to Shabangu and visited the potential site the next day. He set up another meeting with the controversial property tycoon and his brother. He said because Cele told him about the rental and it was his responsibility to find premises, Cele should know of their meeting, but he conceded he didn’t tell Cele they had met.
In the lead-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Cele wanted the SAPS communications division to be moved before June, said his lead advocate, Vincent Maleka, reading from Hlela’s statement and Thuli Madonsela’s report. But only one of Shabangu’s two floors would be available.
Hlela continued to talk to Shabangu and instructed staff to proceed with a needs report to secure the lease. When the department of public works was contacted, Hlela omitted informing its staff he had had earlier meetings with Shabangu. Asked why he didn’t think it was important by both Maleka and Judge Jake Maloi, Hlela said it was because it would be in his progress report to Cele.
He was also hammered for allegedly pressuring public works to procure the property from Shabangu through a negotiation rather than tender. One of Hlela’s deputies had advised in May premises should be secured by issuing a shortened, six-week tender so the communications team could move in promptly. Four days later Hlela went to the public works acting director general and agreed to lease a property through negotiation. Hlela conceded he organised the meeting and pushed for a negotiation on his own accord.
Despite the determination to get the lease before June 2010, Hlela said, “It was clear the communications section would not occupy that building before the World Cup.” In fact, it never moved in. Asked why he didn’t test the market, the deputy was silent. “I did not because we wanted the building,” he said, suggesting he received either explicit or implicit pressure from Cele, but failed to offer evidence.
In October last year, President Zuma announced Cele would be suspended with full pay, privileges and benefits. Zuma told Cele in August he would appoint a board of inquiry to investigate the findings and recommendations of the Public Protector on the procurement of SAPS offices. The board is investigating whether Cele’s actions were dishonest or corrupt, whether he contravened the Public Management Act and treasury rules, or failed to prevent irregular expenditure and prevent financial losses to the state.
Photo: Bheki Cele has hired some of SA’s top lawyers to plead his case at the public hearings in Pretoria. Vincent Maleka, SC, represented Julius Malema at the dubul’ ibhunu Equality Court case. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.
The R500-million Pretoria lease from Shabangu was cancelled after Madonsela found it breached treasury regulations by establishing a contract through negotiations and not public tender. Madonsela also cancelled the R1.1-billon lease of the Durban police headquarters. The leases were found to be “improper and unlawful”.
Madonsela’s report was critical of both the department of public works and SAPS, leading to Cele’s suspension and the removal of Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde as public works minister. The Public Protector found the SAPS had designed their needs report to fit the building and there was a culture of not confronting superiors. It was involved in the procurement process when public works should have taken over and would be paying Shabangu inflated prices. Madonsela criticised public works for deviating unnecessarily from a competitive procurement process.
Before the hearing, Cele told Pretoria News, “I am ready”. He declined to comment on Monday, but looked confident and at times full of disdain as his former deputy spoke. During the recess he ate from his wicker picnic basket and greeted acquaintances.
Cele’s time as police commissioner was marked by controversial comments and his hard-line on crime. In a feature profile, Jilian Green wrote in The Star, “The 2010/11 statistics were good. All categories of crime are down. Murder is down. House robberies are down. Hijacking is down. Cash-in-transit heists are down.”
The public has been invited to submit information or evidence that will help determine whether Cele is fit to hold office. The investigative board includes Judge Jake Maloi, advocate Terry Motau and advocate Anthea Platt and will continue to question Hlela and four more witnesses on Tuesday. The Democratic Alliance has said it will present a case for Cele’s dismissal based on the militarisation of the police, increased killings by police and Cele’s disregard for the Public Finance Management Act. Rumours abounded last year that should Cele be dismissed he would receive a plum diplomatic post. DM
Photo: Suspended police commissioner General Bheki Cele’s bid to be exonerated of maladministration and corruption began on Monday. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.
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