South Africa

South Africa

Hollowing Out the State: Johan Booysen speaks out

Hollowing Out the State: Johan Booysen speaks out

General Johan Booysen’s story is but one example of how government’s law enforcement agencies are being eviscerated. Journalist, author and criminal justice system watcher MANDY WIENER sat down with the alleged leader of the Cato Manor Death Squad. 

Johan Booysen has that aura about him. That one that has sadly become ubiquitous in South Africa – of a government employee who has been sent to hell and back, worn down by years of attempts to erode their resolve but has nevertheless remained committed, fiercely determined and stoically principled.

It would seem that Booysen is just the latest in a long string of high ranking prosecutors, detectives, investigators and lawyers that have been maliciously and strategically worked out of the system. The political landscape is littered with individuals who on the face of it are leaders with integrity and who have been removed from their offices through smear campaigns and trumped-up charges, leaving the organisations that they work for weaker and ineffective.

Vusi Pikoli, Mxolisi Nxasana, Glynnis Breytenbach, Anwa Dramat, Shadrack Sibiya, Robert McBride, Johan van Loggerenberg…


All hollowed out.

Together with journalist Jessica Pitchford, the unlawfully suspended head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal Major General Booysen has written a book laying bare his five-year-long battle with what he believes is a cabal in the National Prosecuting Authority and the SAPS that want to see him gone. He has been accused of heading an alleged death squad – a group of elite cops in Cato Manor – who killed suspected criminals without due regard for human rights. He was charged with murder and racketeering, a crime that carries a potential life sentence or a R1-million fine, but he successfully had the decision to prosecute him overturned in court. He was subsequently recharged and has brought a review application of the latest decision.

Despite the ease of the read, Blood on their Hands is difficult to swallow. Like many of the complex dramas that have played out against the backdrop of the country’s criminal justice system over the last few years, it is a saga that is hard to follow. There are too many players, too many twists and turns, too many agendas and court applications and the public gets lost in the minutiae. The individual, daily developments play out in the news but it is only when they are all pulled together, and the narrative presented in the form of a book, that the true devastating impact of what has happened can be comprehended. By the time you reach the final chapter, the picture will be clear but you will be left despondent and astonished at the sheer audacity of it all.

General Booysen has a relatively poetic explanation as to how he landed in the middle of this shit storm.

“As I say in the book, there’s no simple answer. You have a couple of protagonists, each with an agenda and counteragenda, different dynamics, a couple of useful idiots, a couple of circling sharks, you have a recipe for a perfect storm and that’s where I found myself five years ago. That perfect storm has left a lot of casualties in its wake.”

He agrees wholeheartedly that he is just the next on the list of those who have been worked out for personal political gain, thereby hollowing out the capacity of the state.

“If you look at the casualty list in this whole saga, you sit with the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Mxolisi Nxasana, that was basically orchestrated out of the organisation, you are sitting with the previous acting head of the National Prosecuting Authority in KZN, Advocate Simphiwe Mlotshwa, you are sitting with two other advocates who subsequently resigned and they’ve told me personally it’s because of this. So if you look at the casualty list within the NPA, and those are very qualified prosecutors who have been ostracised because of the fact that they wanted to prosecute without fear or favour. If you look at the casualty list within the Hawks, it’s a whole list. That’s perhaps one of the reasons that I wrote this book, to expose this whole cabal that’s compromising the criminal justice system,” explains Booysen. 

There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the allegations against Booysen and Cato Manor with those currently hanging against the so-called SARS “Rogue Unit” and the claims about illegal Zimbabwean renditions and the Hawks involving Anwa Dramat and Shadrack Sibiya. The allegations against Booysen and Cato Manor first broke in the Sunday Times. The General theorises that the newspaper’s investigative reporters were the pawns of a faction within the police’s Crime Intelligence unit doing the bidding of suspended head Richard Mdluli. In fact, Booysen says he has intelligence that Mdluli is still pulling the strings at Crime Intelligence today despite being on paid leave.

“I can refer specifically to two, or at least three sagas that I believe are interwoven and that’s the so-called rendition matter against Dramat and Sibiya. Now I told General Dramat more than three years ago when the so-called expose appeared in the Sunday Times, I personally told Dramat at the time the person behind the story is Richard Mdluli. And I don’t think he believed me at the time. It’s now become clear after reading the statement of Innocent Khuba from IPID that Mdluli and [Mthandazo Berning] Ntlemeza, the current head of the Hawks, orchestrated the demise of Dramat. Then the so-called SARS rogue team. I know that when we started the investigation against [politically connected KZN businessman] Thoshan Panday, members of the so-called rogue SARS team also investigated Panday. So I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out,” says Booysen sarcastically. 

The question is why? Is it as simple as saying it is all in defence of President Jacob Zuma? That those loyal to Number One are operating on a quid pro quo basis – they have something on him and he protects them and visa versa?

“Ja, look, I’m still an active member of the police so it wouldn’t be my place to criticise my state president so I would rather not answer that question…,” offers the career cop. But he does agree that it certainly looks like an intentional attempt to dismantle and weaken the system. “Sometimes I get that feeling. Why they do it I don’t know. Whether it’s cronyism, nepotism, whether they do it on purpose I don’t know….”

But stop. Consider the possibility that Booysen is in fact the head of a death squad but he has successfully become a media darling. That does tend to happen in South Africa – there may very well be serious allegations against Pikoli and Breytenbach and Pravin Gordhan – but the majority of the media prefer to portray them as the victims of a poisonous cabal intent on protecting the politically powerful. During the past decade covering the criminal justice system, there have been no shortage of people who have whispered in my ear about the apparent dodgy dealings these so-called darlings have been involved in and who knows how much of it is true. In response to Booysen’s book, one of the individuals he criticised told me that he maintains that the general is indeed a “cold-blooded killer”. What does Booysen make of this then?

“I’ll tell them to prove it,” he responds sternly and defiantly. His family affectionately refer to him as donderbossie (thunder cloud) and it is evident why.

“Facts speak for themselves, if you look at all the rulings and findings by various courts, and I’ve been to court six times at great cost to the taxpayer, and on each of those occasions the court ruled in my favour with costs. I’ve been through a protracted disciplinary hearing that lasted six months where the state hired three advocates, two to prosecute me and one to chair and in spite of those attempts I was still cleared. What I find strange is that my detractors are the ones that have been trying to keep out of court for a number of years. Whereas I’ve been going to court all along and I’ve been proving my point in court. So to my detractors I’ll say, and my motto from the beginning has been, let them do their talking in the boardroom and I’ll do mine in the courtroom, there where it counts.”

Booysen’s version gained a great deal more credence this past week when his arch nemesis at the NPA, Nomgcobo Jiba, was struck from the roll of advocates and found to be not fit and proper for office. Booysen has been reluctant to comment about the North Gauteng High Court judgment but his feelings seep through.

“I don’t wish to comment on that other than to say I’ve addressed that quite adequately in the book. I think the comments of the judge amplifies exactly what I attempted to do in my book. If an advocate cannot get it right in authorising the prosecution of someone for a criminal offence that carries a life sentence, and you’re talking about the liberty of people here, or a million rand fine, if a prosecutor cannot get that right, in my opinion she is unfit to be in that position. Her unlawful conduct caused me to have lost my liberty on more than one occasion and I personally don’t think she’s fit to hold that position.”

Despite his repeated successes in court, Booysen remains on suspension, albeit unlawfully. It must be difficult for him to maintain confidence in the justice system then, surely?

“I have absolute faith in our courts. I have no faith in the prosecuting authority, under the current leadership, and I would like to qualify that. There are a number of prosecutors that do good work so I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush. Referring to the law enforcement agencies, the current acting national commissioner, I’ve got faith in him, and I would rather not comment as to whether I’ve got faith in the Hawks or not.”

He can’t be sure what his own personal future with the system will hold.

“I say in my book and I quote Jacques Cousteau that you can never predict the actions of a shark. The one moment there will be blood in the water and they will not attack you and the next moment with no blood in the water they go into a feeding frenzy, so one cannot predict. I’ve learnt in the last four years you cannot predict their actions but whatever they intend coming up with either way, I’m ready for them.”

If Booysen is just the latest in the litany of good guys who have been targeted, leaving the law enforcement agencies eviscerated, then where does it leave us as a country? By dismantling state agencies in the interests of personal vendettas, the capability of the country to fight and catch criminals has blatantly been depleted.

Booysen ends his book with some inspiration and a call to action that resonates.

“I don’t think its all doom and gloom. I think a lot of what happened to me happens all over the world. I conclude the book by saying it’s apathy that creates the fruitful ground for little evil monsters to breed out and eventually it will devour all of us. I think apathy is a dangerous thing. Write to your local newspapers. We have to ventilate these issues and talk about it. We live in a democracy, exercise your rights, and that’s my message to the public.”

Sadly South Africa is rich with fruitful ground for little evil monsters to breed out. So listen to Booysen and others on the list with him – if the public remains apathetic, the monsters will devour all of us, leaving behind mere shells to protect and serve and to prosecute without fear or favour. DM

Original photo of General Johan Booysen by Tebogo Letsie / Sunday Times


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.