Analysis: South Africa’s interregnum and the fight for the soul of SAPS
- Marianne Thamm
- South Africa
- 18 May 2017 12:44 (South Africa)
The brutal murders and rapes of several women in the past weeks are part of a relentless rolling crime wave that continues to grip South Africa. Shootouts and heists at OR Tambo, an army base raided for weapons, children killed for stealing sunflowers, assassinations, mall robberies, brutal home invasions, drive-by shootings. While new Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula slipped into the hot seat with a bang, it’s time to walk the talk. SAPS is bedevilled by a destructive power play in its top structures that is hampering its ability to serve the country’s citizens. At the same time, disgraced Hawks head Mthandazo Ntlemeza wants his job back. Right now it feels as if a general sense of lawlessness has taken grip in a political vacuum of failed leadership. By MARIANNE THAMM.
In March this year 13 armed men breached security at OR Tambo International Airport and made off with R200-million in foreign currency. The robbers arrived in a police vehicle and wearing police uniforms. The gang was well informed; in other words, they had inside information. At the later court appearance of several suspects, Kempton Park magistrate, Amukelani Msimeki, said the state’s case “was subject to serious doubt”.
A month before the audacious OR Tambo heist, IPID executive director Robert McBride told Parliament’s police portfolio committee that one of the cases the directorate was investigating was an incident in which SAPS and Hawks members opened fire on each other at the airport in an apparent squabble over smuggled drugs. Police officials were also, said McBride, shifting large quantities of illegal drugs through domestic arrivals.
In July 2016 SAPS Colonel Christiaan Lodewyk Prinsloo, custodian of the SAPS armoury and once regarded as the SAPS’s “firearm guru”, was sentenced to 18 years for selling guns to convicted gangsters. The names of the children who had been killed in gang crossfire which has raged in the Western Cape, fuelled in part by illegal police weapons, appeared on Prinsloo’s charge sheet.
Two men implicated in the gun-running racket, Alan Raves and Irshaad Laher, are currently facing trial in the Cape High Court for their alleged role as middlemen. Prinsloo sold the guns to Raves and Laher who owned three food franchises in Cape Town. Some of the arms sales went down in the parking lots of the family restaurants. The total value of police guns sold to gangsters is around R9-million.
The theft of 2,500 police guns is still being investigated as well as over 1,100 cases of murder and 1,500 of attempted murder, all linked to the sale of the guns. Prinsloo was tracked down and arrested in 2015 as part of the Western Cape anti-gang unit's “Operation Combat”. The small team of detectives were led by Major-General Jeremy Veary, deputy provincial commissioner for detective services, and Major-General Peter Jacobs, the Western Cape Crime Intelligence boss.
Soon after Phahlane assumed the position of acting National Commissioner, Veary and Jacobs, both seasoned and respected leaders in the province, were sidelined and demoted. Veary and Jacobs were moved from their management positions to the Cape Town and Wynberg policing clusters respectively. Both officers are currently challenging the demotions in the Labour court.
Police officers who know and have worked with both Veary and Jacobs have said that their demotions were part of a strategic political alignment in SAPS and that it was the fight against crime that would suffer in the process.
Another highly respected detective who has also been sidelined is Brigadier Sonja Hari, the formidable head of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences unit, one of the most effective in the province.
It was Hari’s guiding hand that was behind the solving of many crimes in the province, including the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen in February 2013 as well as the arrest of Century City serial killer and rapist Kahangayi Sedumedi, to name only two.
Sedumedi, a 35-year-old security guard, was sentenced in June 2016 to 40 years on three counts of kidnapping, nine counts of rape, one count of assault, one count of attempted rape and four counts of murder. The bodies of women he had raped and murdered were found bound and face down in shallow graves near the popular mall in Cape Town.
Daily Maverick has reliably learned that Hari, who has never sought public recognition, has been suspended on what many believe to be spurious “administrative” charges aimed at kneecapping her. Organisations and NGOs which deal with sexual violence have praised Hari’s leadership and professionalism and expressed shock at her current suspension.
“She is an extraordinary detective and has helped out in many cases where no headway was being made,” said one source.
Both Phahlane and Ntlemeza, upon taking office, instituted widespread changes and restructuring to the provincial management structures of SAPS and the DPCI. In January 2016 the Labour Court in Johannesburg dismissed a Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) urgent application to stop Phahlane’s unilateral restructuring of the SAPS.
Interestingly enough, Phahlane in his submission to Parliament’s police portfolio committee on Tuesday made reference to the fact that many of the officers who had accompanied him to the presentation and who are accused by Robert McBride of interfering in IPID investigations (like Major-General Ntebo Mabula) had over 30 years experience in the SAPS, which means they began their careers in the apartheid-era police force.
Ntlemeza is a former “bantustan” policeman who began his career in the then Transkei in 1981. On the other hand, Veary, Jacobs, former Hawks head, Anwa Dramat, as well as McBride were all members of the ANC’s underground structures. Dramat served time on Robben Island, McBride, Veary and Jacobs were all members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
Part of the current tensions in the SAPS is between these former professional police officers who began their careers in apartheid South Africa and those who were part of the ANC’s underground structures and who were integrated into the SAPS.
In the early 1990s South Africa experienced a bloody and relentless crime wave. It was the interregnum between the death of apartheid and the birth of democracy that appeared to offer a sense of impunity, opportunity and invincibility to criminals.
While political leaders were battling to forge a new sense of the country, their attention elsewhere, criminals stepped up. The country was awash with bloody assassinations, violent murders and massacres (some of them politically motivated and officially sanctioned) as well as spiked levels of general crime.
The downside of South Africa’s return to international legitimacy was that it became a regional hub for the illicit international drug and arms trade. The country was soon awash with drugs which would come to erode social life.
South Africa in 2017 is experiencing yet another interregnum as the ruling party, the ANC, is caught up in a desperate internal battle that has impacted on its ability to show and take effective leadership on all fronts.
Organs of the state, particularly in the criminal justice cluster, have succumbed to destructive factionalism and are perceived as being abused by a grouping loyal to President Jacob Zuma. The NPA, the SAPS, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), the State Security Agency and Criminal Intelligence have all been implicated in the power play.
These agencies appear to be so preoccupied with undermining each other, chasing politically targeted individuals (like Pravin Gordhan) and other “opponents”, that they have been rendered ineffective on many levels when it comes to dealing with real crime and violence. And where political leaders themselves behave as if they are untouchable, criminals will soon follow their lead.
This is where we are at present.
The collateral damage and fallout from this top-level fight for political alignment is acted out in the bodies of the most vulnerable in this violent society. Women and children. Young men too are vulnerable to being drawn into the vortex and make up a disproportionate number of victims of crime.
New Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula, took up the job a few months ago with characteristic gusto. He tweeted, the travelled the country, he talked tough. He visited the scenes of crimes, he praised the gumshoe cops and detectives on the ground, he publicly threatened criminals (as well as the Hawks head).
While many may write this off as bluster, it means something to the countless hard-working and honest cops and detectives who have to do their jobs in treacherous circumstances. It is the psychological leadership that Mbalula appears to have brought to the ministry that will inspire the honest rank and file.
“Make no mistake, it matters a lot,” a seasoned former officer told Daily Maverick.
But Mbalula must also understand that there are many in the top echelons of the SAPS who are rotten and who undermine the capacity of the service to deal with the extreme levels of crime in the country. And as long as the top structures are viewed as corrupt, criminals will exploit the moral lacuna.
While the country is reeling from several brutal and hyper-violent rape and murders of women and children, including that of Karabo Mokeona and three-year-old Chantel Pieters, both at the hand of men they knew, these killers and abusers thrive in an environment where they believe they might get away with it. As it turned out they did not.
The nasty face-off between acting National Commissioner Phahlane – who is being investigated on charges of fraud and defeating the ends of justice by IPID – and IPID head Robert McBride in Parliament on Tuesday highlighted the crisis that exists in SAPS top structures. McBride revealed that threatening messages to IPID investigators had been traced back to phones owned by the SAPS themselves.
The issue with regard to Phahlane is simple; all he needs to do is explain where he got the money to build his R8-million home, its expensive finishes and fittings as well as a fleet of cars. The acting commissioner should also unpack his personal relationship with SAPS suppliers. Easy-peasy and it will all go away.
Attention from the main issue is being diverted by allegations and counter-allegations between IPID and SAPS and it does not encourage any confidence in SAPS leadership. Meanwhile, IPID has called for Phahlane to be suspended pending the conclusion of the investigation. It would be the honourable thing for Phahlane to do in order to clear his name. If the investigation proves to have been instigated with malignant intent, Phahlane will surely have recourse in court.
Ntlemeza, as head of the Hawks, has led the charge in hounding perceived political opponents of President Jacob Zuma, the most notable being his unsuccessful attempts at charging former Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, on a range of alternating charges using recycled case numbers. Ntlemeza will learn on Thursday of the success (or not) of his application to interdict Mbalula from “interfering” with his attempt to return to his position pending an appeal of court judgments that Ntlemeza had been appointed illegally and is unfit to hold the job.
There is much evidence that has been gathered over the years – much of it lodged with police and IPID – with regard to some top officials and their links to criminal/political networks. Some of these dockets have predictably not been properly registered and some have, unsurprisingly, simply disappeared.
While Minister Mbalula has intimated that he will intervene in the Phahlane/IPID matter, the IPID too requires political support for the work it does in guarding the guardians in a country where criminals rattle at the ramparts. DM
Photo: Police forces shoot at protestors during a violent service delivery protest in Ennerdale, Johannesburg, South Africa, 09 May 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK