On Monday afternoon the head of the Special Investigating Unit, Advocate Vas Soni, confirmed that he was resigning from his post. He says he’s leaving the post for “intensely personal reasons”, and that he would have preferred to stay on to finish the management system changes he’d started. In most places, a resignation from an institution like the SIU would be met with sadness. In South Africa, it will be met with cynicism - because of the past history of the unit, and because this latest development will add to the already massive uncertainty in the upper echelons of our corruption-fighting machinery. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Soni was appointed to the position of SIU head at the end of August 2013. It was an intriguing choice. Prior to his arrival, the unit had been left without a head of any sort for over a year and a half. The reason for that was entirely in the hands of Number One. He had decided in 2011, with no explanation being offered, to suddenly force Willie Hofmeyr to leave his post as head of the unit.
Then he appointed Willem Heath, a former judge, in Hofmeyr’s place. Heath had headed the unit before, during a controversial time when the unit wanted to investigate the Arms Deal (this was important, because at the time the unit was the only independent organisation with the legal power to cancel a government contract). Then, about ten days after his reappointment, he gave a puzzling interview in which he claimed that Thabo Mbeki had been responsible for Jacob Zuma’s rape trial. Even he couldn’t survive that, and subsequently resigned. President Zuma simply left the post vacant, until Soni was appointed nearly twenty months later.
Soni was an interesting choice: a well-known advocate, a former member of the Judicial Service Commission, a former acting judge. A mild-mannered, polite man, who insisted on calling even hacks like this writer “Mr”. He has a certain sense of place and propriety that is often missing in our national scene. Shortly after his appointment I came across him in the shivering cold of the Union Buildings Amphitheatre, awaiting the start of Zuma’s second inauguration. An interesting man to talk to – friendly, but unlikely to give much away.
Which is why it’s quite interesting that he has stated publicly that the reason he is resigning is that his wife is not well, and he feels he should spend more time with her. Normally, when someone says they’re resigning for “personal reasons”, journalists scoff a little. This time, however, the statement rings true. He didn’t have to offer that detail, and perhaps he has done so because he is aware of the cynicism that pervades our political space; well done to him.
One of the problems that Soni has had is that he was one of Zuma’s appointments, which means that many would have automatically believed he was appointed only because it suited the president. He was appointed on the same day Mxolisi Nxasana was put in charge of the National Prosecuting Authority. At the time Nxasana was pretty much unknown, and just weeks later it emerged that he had not disclosed during a security assessment that he had once faced a murder charge (he was acquitted on the basis of self-defence).
Perhaps the most contentious investigation the SIU undertook under Soni was the probe into the inflated fees charged by contractors at Nkandla. In that case, the SIU instituted action against some contractors, and in particular against the architect in charge of the whole project, Minenhle Makhanya. That action is still proceeding in Pietermaritzburg.
Whatever the reason for Soni’s resignation (and the Presidency claims not to have received confirmation that he is, in fact, leaving), there is no doubt that this will add to the instability within our corruption-fighting institutions.
Just at the moment, the head of the Hawks, Anwa Dramat, is in limbo, after he was reinstated by the High Court in Pretoria last week, and then the Police Ministry, predictably, decided to appeal, on what must be the most flimsy of grounds (the Helen Suzman Foundation, which brought the case, has already said it’s going to ask for the original order to be enforced during the appeal, while it approaches the Constitutional Court directly to get a final finding).
The situation in the NPA is now so complicated it almost defies explanation (Nxasana is still in charge, its commercial crimes head Lawrence Mrwebi faces criminal charges, one of the organisation’s four deputies Ncgobo Jiba has been accused of working against Nxasana… we could go on, but you’ll just want to jump off a bridge if we do…)
The National Police Commissioner General Riah Phiyega spends much of her time either condemning senior officers who’ve been arrested, or answering the question “do you feel under pressure to resign?”. Once the Farlam Commission into the Marikana killings reports back, she is likely to be under even more pressure, as it is likely to make a finding against the police – the same police she praised for their actions at Marikana.
All in all, it adds up to an incredibly sorry picture. Nowhere, it seems, is there a government body that is actually able to fight corruption. For the moment, the only bright star in this black hole of unstable institutions is Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector. But her term is coming to an end soon, and I’d bet you two nights at Nkandla that the next choice of Public Protector will be, uhm, less combative.
It is, of course, common, and entirely rational and correct, to blame Number One for this state of affairs. It does seem that he is the one person who benefits from all of this continuous turmoil. And certainly he plays an active role in creating this type of situation. He absolutely created the trouble at the NPA by first appointing Menzi Simelane as NPA head and then compounded it by appointing an unknown to take over from him. He also appointed Phiyega, who is an advocate and a very competent manager, but not a police officer. At the Hawks, it was claimed that Dramat was only being moved for political reasons, and after he asked for the Nkandla case files.
Even if Number One didn’t try to create this situation, he must surely bear responsibility for allowing it to happen. As Corruption Watch head David Lewis put it to EWN on Monday, “This is a huge failure on the part of the political leadership…Even if they’re not actually responsible for orchestrating the instability, they have to take responsibility for it.”
It is impossible for anyone (even you, Mac!) to argue against that. The joy of being Number One is that you are where the buck stops. He may not be responsible for Soni’s resignation, but he, and those around him, are surely responsible for the ultimate terrible state of affairs. DM
Photo: Advocate Vas Soni is interviewed by eNCA in his Sandton offices on 03 September 2013. Soni will be taking over as head of the Special Investigating Unit. Photo: Dianne Hawker for eNCA.