Death Squads & Covert Units: Nathi Nhleko’s not-so-hidden hand in State Capture to be revealed

Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko presents the National crime statistics for the past financial year to the Police Portfolio Committee at the Good Hope Chambers in Parliament on September 29, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Lerato Maduna)

A key to former president Jacob Zuma’s State Capture political project required the placing of pliant and ruthless individuals in key positions, particularly law enforcement agencies, and who were able to do Zuma’s bidding. Former IPID head, Robert McBride, was due to testify at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry in February, but his much-anticipated appearance was postponed to a later date. At least 30 high-profile officials have been named by McBride, including former minister of police Nathi Nhleko.

The 30-day deadline for those implicated by McBride to reply has come and gone. His testimony cuts to the heart of the State Capture project including the establishment of Russian and Chinese-trained covert units and “hit squads”.

On Thursday, 6 December 2018, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture received a call from an individual claiming to be a member of a 16-person covert “hit squad”. Commission investigators immediately met with IPID head Robert McBride informing him the caller had complained that IPID “had no business getting involved in their covert activities”.

The individual pertinently mentioned that he and other members of the unit had been tasked to do certain operations at the Commission. This was confirmed by the commission who had a record of certain incidents, reported by some of its staff, relating to surveillance operations being undertaken by someone or some group,” McBride sets out in an affidavit dated 10 December 2018 prepared for the commission, and which has been handed to the commission as part of his yet-to-be-given testimony.

The unit McBride refers to is allegedly a 16-member team, mostly from Northern KwaZulu-Natal, recruited in 2016, trained in military combat in the People’s Republic of China, and then covertly trickled by the former Minister of Police, Nathi Nhleko, into the country’s law enforcement agencies including the “elite corruption busting agency”, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations (commonly known as the Hawks), as well as Crime Intelligence.

It’s a helluva revelation and one that begins to sketch a line between a few, as yet unconnected dots in the deep machinery of the State Capture project.

It sheds some light on the “mysterious” break-ins at the Chief Justice’s offices and the Helen Suzman Foundation in 2016 just when the NGO was challenging Nhleko’s illegal appointment of Berning Ntlemeza as Hawks acting head in 2015.

At the time, speculation was rife that the incidents involved some sort of covert or rogue unit. But there was no evidence, just rumour and a series of strange coincidences.

Now, says McBride, there is extensive evidence.

Members for this covert unit, says McBride in his affidavit, were recruited through Indoni, “a moral regeneration programme targeting the youth” and founded by Nhleko’s wife, Dr Nomcebo Mthembu.

Upon their return, the members were first welcomed into the bosom of Ntlemeza’s Hawks and were later fed off to Major-General Dumezweni Zimu, Crime Intelligence counter- and security-intelligence head, also appointed by Nhleko.

Crime Intelligence, McBride says in his affidavit, “had no real knowledge of their existence, training, mandate and taskings”.

McBride sets out how he met with Peter Jacobs, Divisional Commissioner of Crime Intelligence, “who said he was unaware of any authorised operation targeting the Commission”.

The recruits, McBride learned from Jacobs, had subsequently been “redeployed” to Crime Intelligence headquarters as “security guards”.

So, what the call to the Zondo Commission offices appears to indicate is that there are rogue spooks about sniffing around the commission.

But hoping to do what exactly?

McBride does not hold back telling the commission that the unit “posed a very real and present threat that the Commission is the target of an attack, and more particularly aimed at past and future witnesses, who have given evidence at the Commission.”

Information about the unit fell within the mandate of the Zondo Commission, said McBride, as it demonstrated that there was “potentially an armed military unit operating outside the statutory mandate of SAPS, whose existence was kept secret, even from formal SAPS Crime Intelligence structures.”

The thing about the 16 recruits, says McBride, is that none of them had applied for “security” jobs that had been advertised. Some had even given bogus addresses and, noted McBride, “none of them have any special skills or ability for them to be afforded any preference for training opportunities or employment”.

Then he adds: “Up until July 2018, this unit operated covertly, reporting to a specific command structure.”

While McBride does not reveal this “specific command structure”, he claims he has over 2,000 pieces of evidence – video and audio – attached as annexes to his testimony.

Over and above uncovering evidence – a comprehensive list of the covert operations unit – McBride said there “was no evidence of any other similar group within SAPS/CI environment”.

But IPID had become aware, however, that “within the SSA there may be similar groups, and notably rumours about a contingent of approximately 200 individuals who obtained highly secret military training in Russia”.

In February 2019, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo postponed McBride’s much-anticipated appearance before the commission, in order to allow at least 30 high-ranking officials who have been implicated to respond.

Nhleko, at this stage, is one of the most senior of them – a former Cabinet minister.

The deadline for a response from these implicated officials has come and gone. Emails from Daily Maverick to Zondo Commission spokesperson, Reverend Mbuyiselo Stemela, as to when McBride can be expected to be called to testify, were not answered at the time of writing.

Emails from Daily Maverick to Nhleko (who has been dropped from the ANC list, unlike a few other of Zuma’s human shields) as well as Dr Mthembu with regard McBride’s testimony were not replied to.

McBride’s Zondo Commission testimony cuts to the heart of the State Capture project and how it played out in the country’s law enforcement agencies.

Nhleko features as a recurring player who was, right from the start of the Zuma presidency in 2009, part of a small inner circle who surrounded the then-new president and which was called the “Engine Room”.

In his submission, McBride makes a further revelation in his affidavit, which he says ultimately doubles back to the Chinese-trained covert unit, of how in 2009, the tripartite alliance – the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP – nominated senior leaders “to look at ways to re-position government to make it more efficient but also to assist with the orientation of the president-to-be, at that stage, Mr Zuma”.

The Transitional Team consisted of Neil Coleman from Cosatu, Solly Mapaila from the SACP and Collins Chabane for the ANC.

Before Zuma’s appointment, however, a group of individuals known as the “Engine Room” had availed themselves to the president-to-be, to discuss strategy “with regards the placing of strategic people in strategic positions.”

The Engine Room was made up of Zuma, Nhleko (who was Provisional Commissioner of Corrections, later to become DG of Labour, Minister of Police and Minister of Public Services), Riah Phiyega (appointed as National Police Commissioner in 2012), Bonisile Makhene (who would go on to become Zuma’s legal adviser), her husband, SSA spy Yekane Mondi Gadini (later implicated in setting up, at Zuma’s behest, a rival union to Amcu, WAU, at Lonmin), Thuli Madonsela (later to be appointed Public Protector and who would be key to exposing Zuma’s breach of ethics, the Nkandla upgrades), Glen Mashinini (a special projects adviser to Zuma and now Chairperson of the IEC), Vincent Magwenya (later a spokesperson for Zuma) and Mandla Sithole NoZulu (who went on to become a special adviser to Police Minister Nhleko).

Responding to McBride’s revelation of her membership of the Engine Room, Madonsela told Daily Maverick:

I have decided to respect the State Capture Commission process by waiting till I’m requested to explain or defend an allegation of impropriety. All I can say now is I have never had a corrupt or unethical relationship with former president Zuma. Grand corruption, as far as I understand is the essence of the State Capture investigation. I’ve never been part of such. As regards how I was nominated as PP, SAWID, who nominated me can assist you.”

The Engine Room, says McBride, “functioned outside the mandate of the ruling party and the state”.

McBride sets out a meeting with Mapaila where the SACP leader confirmed the existence of the Transitional Team and set out the context.

They had a series of engagements/work sessions with the then president-to-be in preparation for the new administration. On at least one of these occasions, the president-to-be introduced the Transitional Team to the Engine Room. As the Engine Room had no mandate from the ANC, the Transitional Team expressed their concerns as to the appropriateness of the meeting with them. In short, the existence of the ‘Engine Room’ was of great concern to the Transitional Team,” said McBride.

Zuma had “laughed this off” saying he had been working with the Engine Room “for some time and that they been assisting him to understand some initiatives for the new administration”.

At one of the meetings between the Engine Room and the Transitional Team, says McBride, Nhleko did a presentation that related to prisons and another introducing the concept of a Border Managment Authority.

Later, when The Border Management Authority Bill finally made it to Parliament in 2017, Daily Maverick‘s Richard Poplak described it as “widely regarded as one of the worst pieces of legislation ever to hit the House”.

This is the bill that hands over the policing of our borders to a stand-alone authority answering only to the Minister of Home Affairs and the President – a parastatal that will collect over R3-billion rand of customs and duties outside of the South African Revenue Service’s computerised systems. What’s more, it treats migrants and asylum seekers like errant livestock. State capture? This is the sine qua non. While you were otherwise occupied, they screwed you.”

Nhleko proved to be a loyal Zuma shield and a key to the State Capture project. He was a loyal ANC suit who was prepared, like his political principal, to lie to Parliament, a man of apparent limitless access to funds and dubious judgement.

(Nhleko’s once chief of staff, one Leon Abednigo Mbangwa, who was convicted of fraud in 2002, appeared on 22 March 2019 in the Durban Commercial Crime Court on charges of fraud. Mbangwa, who worked for Dr Mthembu’s Indoni before being appointed by Nhleko in 2016, is a fake name for Zimbabwean Lionel Moyo. Moyo’s current charges relate to his faking his qualifications to score a job at the Department of Health in Nhleko’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal in 2006. It cost the department R3-million.)

It was Nhleko who helped set up in 2013, as DG of Labour, the bogus union to rival AMCU. It was Nhleko who illegally appointed Ntlemeza, National Commissioner Riah Phiyega and her replacement acting National Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane.

It was Nhleko who illegally suspended Robert McBride, Anwar Dramat and Shadrack Sibiya. It was Nhleko who racked up a hefty legal bill in these gratuitous court actions he lost, the bills being footed by taxpayers.

It was Nhleko who sweated his way through his own “alternative” Nkandla Report in 2015, exonerating Jacob Zuma, it was Nhleko who invented the fiction of the firepool and who demonstrated, to the soundtrack of the operatic aria O Solo Mio, how it actually worked.

And it was Nhleko who pursued, through Ntlemeza and other proxies, Pravin Gordhan, Ivan Pillay and the rest of the SARS executive purged by Tom Moyane.

With regard to the 16-member rogue unit, McBride suggests:

There is an immediate need for former Minister Nhleko, General Ntlemeza, General Zimu, General Jacobs, Dr Nomcebo Mthembu and Leon Mbanga to explain what was the intended expected role/function for the security guards.”

We wait. DM


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