South Africa

Operation Wonder: Why we chose to ignore explosive dossier

By Marianne Thamm 31 August 2017

Operation Wonder, an intelligence dossier exposing an alleged plot to assassinate and/or dislodge, implicate and/or exonerate, set up/and or expose Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula plopped into public view on Sunday. The report on the apparently “secret” project was leaked to Daily Maverick eight days before. Its contents are unsurprisingly sensational. A regular A-list of familiar rogues are fingered. There is probably a kernel of worrying truth in the steaming pile. We chose not to publish any of it. This is why. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Imagine you are an alien. Your Virgin Earth Tours craft has landed in a lovely little patch at the tip of the African continent. You are not here for any malevolent reason – no colonic probing of a Telkom helpline assistant, no kidnapping of a SANRAL official – just to enjoy, get R&R, some much needed sunlight. You selected this destination because it is an apparently peaceful constitutional democracy governed by a party voted into power by the majority of its people.

It’s a Sunday. You exit the craft and almost trip over a newspaper stand groaning under a pile of titles capturing the week’s key events. You pick up three of the rags, needing quickly to brush up.

Top Cops Implicated in a plot to assassinate minister of police” screams one headline. “Secret Plot to Oust Mbaks” reads another and then “Mbalula vs Polisie”.

This is HUGE, you remark discreetly to your alien traveling companions.

Shit! Maybe we should have opted for Canada?

A plot to assassinate a cabinet minister!!!

And not just any old cabinet minister. THE MINISTER OF POLICE!!!

You read the reports. It doesn’t look good. In fact it looks as if things might just blow any minute now.

Apart from an allegation that the country’s new acting National Commissioner of Police, Lieutenant-General Lesetja Mothiba, appears to be behind a dastardly plot that involves an evil triumvirate of rogue police officers – former head of criminal intelligence, suspended for more than eight years, on full pay, apparently still hard at work, Lieutenant General Richard Mduli, former Hawks head whom a court has labelled a liar, Lieutenant-General Mthandazo Ntlemeza, and suspended former acting National Commissioner Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane who is facing charges of alleged corruption – there is also the revelation that there are plans by President Zuma to reshuffle the cabinet (again). By September, writes the author of this “report”, Malusi Gigaba and Fikile Mbalula are out in political tundra.

But wait, there is more.

The rogue cops are planning to stitch-up the Police Minister before he gets the presidential chop, warns the report. One, Ntlemeza, had already arranged breaking into the offices of the NPA to steal with and/or tamper with a docket placing the Minister’s name in it, thereby implicating him.

But in reality the Minister’s name is already linked to a case involving North-West businessman Wandile Bozwana, an ANC benefactor who was gunned down in 2015. Bozwana was a friend of Mbalula’s and questions have been asked about whether Bozwana channelled R1 million through radio personality Tbo Touch to benefit Mbalula’s trip to Las Vegas to watch Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao attempt to beat each other to a pulp.

Operation Wonder, says a deep-cover agent, also plans to dig up dirt on the Minister’s past. You know women and Instagram selfies and all that.

While neither the Minister of Police nor any other senior member of his office or the SAPS have gone on record in any of the newspaper reports or to Daily Maverick confirming that that report on Operation Wonder is indeed real, legit and authentic (they should know, shouldn’t they?) Mbalula did acknowledge that his security had been stepped up.

But that’s about it.

No “we are rounding them all up… tonight… Treason is in the air!”

Instead Mbalula was quoted on Sunday as simply saying “I am shocked and extremely disappointed that this has gotten this far”.

Disappointed.

He added: “I will not be deterred from cleaning up the SAPS and professionalising it.”

Daily Maverick attempted to ask Mbalula questions several times last week, but was unsuccessful.

But why would Mbalula be a target? And why right now? These are essential questions to hold in mind (there are many others as well).

According to the report, the Minister is seen as a stumbling block.

Mind you, he did arrive in the job with a bang and a tweet.

He fired Ntlemeza on the spot after civil society spent a fortune on lawyers trying to get rid of him in the country’s courts for months beforehand. Then he pulled the rug out from under Phahlane. Just why Mdluli continues to be so slippery we can’t quite work out. But we do know the president is “close” to Mdluli.

Operation Wonder also sets out a cunning plan to “infiltrate” Mbalula’s office and to remove senior police officials “closely linked to Mbalula”.

In a real world, in the normal world, a plot to kill a cabinet minister and completely disrupt its police service would be a CODE RED event.

I take it you have stopped imagining to be a visiting alien tourist and are the shocked South African you should be by now.

This plot, if true, would have been a direct and imminent threat to the country’s democracy and it does smell alarmingly like a hard coup as opposed to a “soft coup”, a la Motion of No Confidence.

Surely an effective, functioning government/state in control of all its branches would know about a serious plot of this nature – involving a long list of dubious and careless individuals, some of them convicted criminals – long before the evildoers even press send to the other evildoers on the evildoers Whatsapp group?

But this is South Africa 2017.

Anything can, and does, happen.

We are sloping towards December and the ANC’s elective conference. These are the end-days of the kleptocratic Zuptas. Some are looking to future-proof their careers, to shrug when all of this is over and say “I didn’t know”, “I was on the right side, I was only pretending”.

If there is one thing that should have positively leapt out at the Minister and that he should have dealt with immediately when the “plot” became evident, it was the reference in the report to the use of a Grabber by those who were “authorised” to carry out Operation Wonder.

A Grabber or IMSI-Catcher is one of the more powerful surveillance tools used to eavesdrop on cellphone communications, access bank transactions, in essence get right up deep inside your business. Illegally of course, unless a judge has given permission, which is unlikely in the case of “Operation Wonder”.

There are not many grabbers in the country. It is not so difficult to keep track of them. Well, it should be, at least.

As Shaun Swingler wrote in Daily Maverick:The implications of this device are enormous. In the wrong hands, it can be used to eliminate political rivals, curb a free press by targeting investigative journalists.”

It is illegal to possess an IMSI-Catcher without top-level authorisation. It is a serious offence – worse than leaking a fake intelligence document creaking with a few half-truths.

The last time a grabber was floating around Cape Town it was in the hands of Paul Scheepers, an ex-cop who moonlighted as a security expert and who was contracted to “sweep” Premier Helen Zille’s office.

Daily Maverick has reliably learned that the Grabber is currently being “supervised” by Western Cape head of crime intelligence Major-General Mzwandile Tiyo. Tiyo allegedly does not have high level security clearance.

So what else is Operation Wonder about?

Well, it reveals that money has been activated from a secret fund and that the “big three”, Mdluli, Ntlemeza and Phahlane, have received an allocation to execute “the project”.

Phahlane has subsequently rejected this claim:

This is the weirdest allegation I have ever received. I don’t even know some of the people you are mentioning that are part of the plot,” Phahlane told City Press.

A former associate of Phahlane said he did not believe the career policeman had the stomach, or cared enough, for an elaborate plot to assassinate the Minister of Police.

The report reads; “FAM to be dislodged. Activate old compromise imagery on FAM for public release. Potential involvement of Big 3 in NPA break-ins”.

One of the issues bubbling under the surface at SAPS is the implementation of the SAPS NSF (non-statutory force) project aimed at creating positions for former members of the military wings of liberation movements including MKVA and AZAPO. The project aims to rerank MKVA members into managerial positions and will cost around R10 billion.

The Project Wonder report states “Minister seen as a stumbling block on the promotion of NSF members. Minister seen as unsupportive to Mothiba being permanent NatComm.”

The report attempts to directly link Mothiba to Colonel Smangaliso “Smanga” Simelane, former head of crime intelligence in Soweto. Simelane was the immediate superior of Morris “Captain KGB” Tshabalala, who was released this year on parole after serving two years on charges of armed robbery. Tshabalala is currently a suspect in the R200m OR Tambo heist which took place in March.

Simelane is implicated in several criminal cases (at least 10) and was named by former PRASA board Chair, Popo Molefe, as one of a group of MKVA members who had met in 2015 to discuss the threat that Molefe posed to PRASA CEO Lucky Montana. Molefe claimed Simelane plotted to kill him.

On August 17 Mothiba fired acting Crime Intelligence head Pat Mokushane and announced that he himself would act in the position until President Zuma scuppered all of that a few days later by appointing his trusted former bodyguard King Baloyi Ngcobo to the position.

What’s that you say?

You can’t hold onto it all? Who are all these people?

That’s the point.

Chuck a whole lot of info/fake info in your face so you can’t see the wood for the trees. The trees are there if you look for them.

The report on Operation Wonder suggests that Mokushane was axed because he had been feeding information to IPID director Robert McBride.

McBride access is seen as problematic. Mokushane moved with consent of Mdluli. Minister to be linked to McBride.”

McBride of course has found himself the focus of an investigation into the alleged assault of his young daughter. All this in the same week that Operation Wonder surfaces.

These, dear reader are simply facts.

A day after the three Sunday papers published their reports of the plot to kill Mbalula, investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh – author of the best-selling book “Republic of Gupta”, revealed that one of the claims in the Operation Wonder report, that the Hawks had secretly raided a Gupta-linked dairy farm in the Free State, is “a fabrication.”

Dairy Farm Secret Raid by Hawks – likely arrest of Minister Zwane. Mbalula and advisors went quite [sic] on day. No activity. Project Wonder budget doubled by [acting national police commissioner Lesetja] Mothiba upon hearing of raid. Raid date circa two weeks ago. Mbalula – no media alert. Could be attempt to lessen threats against him. Gupta link,” the report document reads.

Myburgh exposed that it is all a load of nothing.

There we have it.

All attempts by Daily Maverick to communicate with National Commissioner Mothiba have been met with a silence. You would imagine that his being implicated in a plot to murder the Minister of Police might prompt the acting Commissioner to at least provide a statement. But no.

Daily Maverick, however, made several inquiries with regard to Mothiba who is a career police officer with an impeccable record. Mothiba is regarded by those who know him and who have worked with him as “clean” and “a very good cop”

Mothiba had apparently embarked on a campaign to clean up the SAPS and CI which is teaming with criminals and opposing political factions. Much of CI is dysfunctional and unable to provide dedicated members of SAPS with solid or credible intelligence on criminal activity.

Reading the report on Operation Wonder one is struck by how the author(s) is intent on drawing Minister Fikile Mbalula as a victim, as a man at the forefront of a major clean up but who has become a target of dirty cops who seek to tarnish or kill him.

Operation Wonder is a badly-written and dubious intelligence report. But in South Africa dubious intelligence reports can be, and are, dangerous and used as blunt political weapons.

Ask former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas. One minute they were in England in March wooing investors, the next they were labelled zombies and agents of WMC in an “intelligence report” ordered home by President Zuma and fired.

So we did not run with the story. The report was clearly planted and no-one, not even the people whose lives were supposedly in danger, would go on record.

As someone once said to us, “it has too many holes in it and smells like a dead seal in a blocked drain”. DM

Original photo of a brick road by Lisa Williams via Flickr.

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