Daily Maverick

NPA realignment, step 2: Willie Hofmeyr out of Asset Forfeiture Unit

The Asset Forfeiture Unit has withstood the onslaught of political meddling in recent years and gone on to achieve a record performance at the National Prosecuting Authority. Now the latest Zuma appointee, national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams, has set his sights on the unit and its head, Willie Hofmeyr. By GLYNNIS UNDERHILL.

Political meddling in South Africa’s crime-fighting institutions is nothing new, but the highly successful Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) has withstood the onslaught over the years. Controversial former national director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane set his sights on the unit and wanted to disband it in 2010, as stated in the five-year plan he presented to Parliament. This was later dismissed by Simelane as an “administrative error”, after his moves on the unit caused a public furore. Further attempts to fiddle with the unit were prevented when Simelane’s appointment by President Jacob Zuma was contested and set aside by the courts. Now the latest Zuma appointee, national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams, has set his sights on the AFU. And he has targeted the unit’s highly successful head, advocate Willie Hofmeyr, who is said by his staff to be a stickler for legal compliance.

The first Hofmeyr knew of the plan to axe him as head of the AFU was when an internal memo was circulated recently at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). On Monday next week, Hofmeyr is set to be redeployed to the recesses of the legal affairs division.

If he goes quietly, that is. Although Hofmeyr is one of the four deputy national directors of public prosecutions at the NPA, under which the AFU falls, well-placed sources said he was given no warning of his pending demotion, neither was he informed of his relocation to the NPA’s small legal affairs division before the internal memo went out.

On Monday, Hofmeyr is due to hand over to his replacement, advocate Nomvula ‘Pinky’ Mokhatla, who is also a deputy national director of public prosecutions. (Mokhatla was brought into the NPA by Simelane.)

If he accepts his new post, Hofmeyr will take over the division that formerly fell under advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, who has now been given a huge promotion, NPA staff say. Never before has there been a more powerful position than Jiba’s new job as head of prosecutions, since the National Specialised Services Division, which was previously run by Mokhatla, will be added to her division.

Some NPA staff hope Hofmeyr will not go down without a fight, as they would like to see him publicly tackle what they say is “political meddling”. And if Hofmeyr decides to challenge his redeployment, they say they will back him to the hilt.

NPA sources point out there can be no good or justifiable reason for wanting to remove Hofmeyr from office. Yet long before the changes to the leadership were circulated in an internal memo, the Daily Maverick was informed that Hofmeyr was a “priority target”.

“It appears that they want him removed from the AFU,” an NPA source said. “His successes and his rigidness in terms of compliance are a hindrance. They haven’t been able to tarnish his reputation or character.”

Hofmeyr has achieved widely-acknowledged successes at the AFU, which was created in 1999 to seize criminal assets and to use them to maximum effect in the fight against crime, particularly organised crime.

A number of factors could be responsible for bringing on the move to remove Hofmeyr, say NPA staff, who believe one reason he might have been targeted is the fact that he attempted to help former national director of public prosecutions Mxolisi Nxasana when Zuma was trying to remove him from office.

Just as a commission of inquiry Zuma had set up to examine his fitness for office was about to kick off, the pair struck a deal. It is believed Nxasana was paid out more than R17.3-million for his 10-year contract.

Before he quit, Nxasana wrote in the NPA’s annual report for 2014/2015 that the AFU warranted a “special mention”, with the best overall performance recorded, significantly exceeding its best performance in 2013/2014. Most noteworthy were:

So what genuine explanation could there be for wanting to get rid of Hofmeyr, other than political meddling, ask NPA staff?

Some NPA staff believe Hofmeyr has been targeted because of the AFU’s involvement in politically sensitive cases, including the one involving businessman Thoshan Panday and the South African Police Service’s Colonel Navin Madhoe. Both Panday and Madhoe were arrested following an authorised sting operation captured on videotape.

The two men were accused of trying to bribe KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Major-General Johan Booysen with R2-million to quash investigations into allegations that they ran a R60-million police accommodation scam during the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Edward Zuma, one of the president’s sons, was allegedly Panday’s silent business partner at one time. In July 2011, Edward Zuma called on Booysen and allegedly asked him to release R15-million of Panday’s money that had been frozen during the investigation. According to Booysen, Edward Zuma told him he was a silent partner in Panday’s business and had invested R900,000. Edward Zuma confirmed the visit in reports at the time, but claimed he had met Booysen to find out whether Panday was being investigated and whether he should invest in his business.

The bribery charges against Panday and Madhoe were eventually withdrawn by KwaZulu-Natal prosecutions boss Moipone Noko, and an advocate in her office declined to prosecute the police accommodation scam case. But before he quit, Nxasana called for a review of the withdrawal of both cases.

Another politically sensitive case in which the AFU swooped on assets, is the R144-million “Amigos” corruption and racketeering trial against top African National Congress (ANC) figures and businessman Gaston Savoi and his company Intaka. Noko’s office has also withdrawn charges against top ANC figures Mike Mabuyakhulu and Peggy Nkonyeni.

While the jury is still out on whether Hofmeyr will fight his removal, it is unlikely he will succeed in staving off moves to remove him for long.

Although he enjoys a solid reputation as an around-the-clock worker, and has impressive anti-apartheid struggle credentials, it is not believed this will hold sway when it comes to trying to get rid of him. And it has not been to his advantage that in an affidavit filed in March in the Democratic Alliance’s “spy tapes” case, Hofmeyr took a controversial stance and defended the NPA’s decision to drop the corruption charges against President Zuma, arguing that the decision was taken with regard to abuse of prosecutorial process, not just the merits of the charges.

A veteran anti-apartheid activist, Hofmeyr was detained, restricted and banned several times and served as an executive member of the Western Cape United Democratic Front for four years after the ANC was banned. Once South Africa was liberated, he served in the dual role of head of the AFU and head of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) for years, until Zuma axed him from the SIU in 2011.

And when Zuma needed someone to act as interim head of the SIU, after former judge Willem Heath stepped down just 17 days in the job, it was Mokhatla he turned to.

As others have found before Hofmeyr, sometimes you have to know when to step down, as former member of the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe military wing and head of the Hawks Anwa Dramat did when he eventually resigned from his post in April this year.

So while it has long been recognised within the NPA that there would be attempts made to “gun” for Hofmeyr, there has been no public announcement about his pending removal.

When Abrahams held a press conference on Tuesday this week to announce that charges of fraud and perjury would be withdrawn against Jiba, he declined to respond to questions about unconfirmed major changes he was making to the NPA leadership structures.

In fact, some believe the press conference Abrahams called about Jiba, and her own subsequent press conference, might have been a diversion for the leadership changes that are quietly taking place behind the scenes at the NPA.

The NPA’s turnaround in deciding to drop charges against Jiba will not affect the application by the General Council of the Bar to have her struck from the roll of advocates.

And the tensions are still high at the NPA, where legal staff claim the so-called “Jiba camp” gloated about the appointment of Abrahams after Nxasana’s departure.

Yet Abrahams has not been well-received in his new post by senior legal figures. “Unfortunately, the citizens are the losers again, as he won’t last long,” mused an NPA legal figure at the time of his appointment.

For one thing, Abrahams was junior to the other deputy national directors of public prosecutions, and they and other senior NPA figures had been overlooked for the top job. 

Then there was the fact that Abrahams had once worked as the clerk of former national director of public prosecutions, Mokotedi Mpshe, who in 2009 dropped 700 charges of corruption against Zuma. After that, Abrahams worked closely with Mpshe for years at the NPA.

Even the clerks were shaking their heads after he was appointed as national director of public prosecutions,” said an NPA staffer. “It is so discouraging.”

While it is acknowledged that Abrahams is a good prosecutor, some say this does not necessarily make him a good manager.

And they have been patiently waiting to see what he would do next.

When Abrahams made his announcement this week about withdrawing the charges against Jiba, there was a slump in morale among some senior NPA prosecutors.

Senior legal figures now forecast Jiba could one day take over the top post, if the General Council of the Bar does not succeed in having her struck from the roll of advocates.

And NPA legal staff say the real victims in this tragic saga are South Africa’s citizens, and people like Hofmeyr, who only want to fight crime. DM

Photo: Willie Hofmeyr (SAPA)

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