DM168

DM168 Analysis

Khehla Sitole and the case of the disappearing national security threat

National police commissioner Khehla Sitole. Photo: Jaco Marais

What became of the major hazard at the ANC's 2017 Nasrec conference that necessitated a R45-million ‘grabber’?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In a nutshell:

  • The beleaguered SAPS Crime Intelligence, after being alerted by a “minister in the security cluster”, uncovered  a threat of “some magnitude” to the country’s “national security” just prior to the ANC’s 2017 elective conference at Nasrec.
  • Another Zuma-dominated security actor, the State Security Agency (SSA), on the other hand, did a sweep and found no immediate threats and continued to monitor the conference until its conclusion on 19 December, with no major threats detected.
  • These were two parallel security universes, one empty and other full of smoke, mirrors, electromagnetic blankets and the R45-million “Nasrec grabber solution”.
  • National Commissioner Khehla Sitole has recently requested President Cyril Ramaphosa to hold off on instituting an inquiry into his fitness to hold office in order to present his version of the illegal grabber procurement to Parliament’s police committee.
  • One thing is now clear, though: the SSA’s precise security assessment of the 2017 Nasrec conference blows SAPS Crime Intelligence’s argument out of water.

A State Security Agency (SSA) risk assessment of the Nasrec Expo Centre, where the ANC was to hold its watershed elective conference in December 2017, found no immediate threats apart from possible conflict between ANC delegates themselves. (It was first reported on by News24 here.)

“Given the dissatisfaction among delegates, particularly KZN, Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga regarding the nomination of delegates to attend the conference and presidential candidates to be elected, possible clashes between and within groups cannot be discounted,” the report found.

The SSA report, dated 13 December 2017, and which Daily Maverick has verified with two sources, is a far cry from the “threat to national security” that turned up in an SAPS Crime Intelligence “sweep” that allegedly necessitated the attempted illegal procurement of a surveillance device known as a grabber at the hugely inflated price of R45-million.

This was done, according to Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) investigators, to flush out cash from the Secret Service Account to “buy” votes for a faction of delegates who attended the conference.

Crime Intelligence’s own “assessment”, however, led to the apparent discovery of “electromagnetic blankets” in two hotel rooms in Johannesburg as well as detecting “suspiciously large numbers of foreign persons claiming to be journalists” entering the country.

The SSA concluded on 13 December that “at this stage no direct threats to the successful hosting of the 54th ANC National Elective Conference have been detected in Gauteng for the upcoming 24 hours”.

On the same day, SAPS National Commissioner Khehla Sitole attended a clandestine meeting in Pretoria along with his deputies Lieutenant-General Francinah Vuma (divisional commissioner: financial management and administration) and Lieutenant-General Lebeona Tsumane (deputy national commissioner: crime detection); as well as supplier I-View, a company whose director was Inbanathan Kistiah. It was in business rescue at the time and was not on the SAPS supplier base.

Also at the meeting was then Crime Intelligence head Bhoyi Ngcobo as well as Bo Mbindwane, adviser to then police minister Fikile Mbalula.

Sitole, Vuma and Tsumane were found on 13 January 2021 by the High Court in Pretoria to have been in breach of their duties and that they had put the interests of the ANC ahead of those of the country by refusing to declassify documents related to the procurement.

Judge Norman Davis remarked that the SAPS, while it claimed to be acting in the interests of “national security”, was, in fact, looking after the interests of the ANC, or at least a faction in the ANC.

Though Sitole had blocked the “grabber solution” deal after being tipped off by then IPID head Robert McBride, he still stands accused as the accounting officer and head of the SAPS.

In court papers, Vuma had said that at the time, the attempt at procuring the grabber had been instigated by a “minister in the Security Cluster”.

Sitole, in court documents, said the deal had been “directed” by the acting national commissioner for Crime Intelligence, Major-General King Bhoyi Ngcobo.

Ngcobo was appointed by Zuma in August 2017, four months before the Nasrec face-off between Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. In City Press on 21 March 2021, journalist Abram Mashego wrote that Crime Intelligence sources had revealed to the newspaper that the “electromagnetic blankets” had “already been flagged by security at OR Tambo International Airport”.

Crime Intelligence sources had also told City Press that two months before the conference “a passenger whose luggage contained a security-level unassembled drone with night vision” had been flagged.

Then there was “an influx of suspiciously large numbers of foreign persons claiming to be journalists” as well as rumours of assassination plots and foreign spies.

The scope of the 13 December 2017 SSA assessment included “violent terror attacks”, “violent attacks by extremist and other interest groups”, “possible dissatisfaction by ANC marshals” as well as “violent manifestations of political intolerance”.

Possible “indirect risks” identified included “violent community protests”, “violent attacks against foreign nationals” and “violent conflict in the public transport sector”.

The job of the SSA was to “determine the existence, nature and stability-related threats and risks that may impact negatively on the hosting of the event”. In the end it found that there “was no information indicating any planned acts targeted at the conference” by any “terrorist” or “extremist” organisations.

While security measures remained at OR Tambo, the SSA identified concerns at Lanseria International Airport.

“No roving patrols were observed by SAPS and Bidvest Protea Coin private security in the LIA terminal buildings. There is still no dedicated SAPS kiosk. There is no CCTV coverage at the viewing deck of the vastly frequented Wiesenhof restaurant within the terminal building due to cameras not being functional since roof repairs.”

The report noted that “no new information has come to the fore in the past 24 hours with regard to potential disruptions by dissatisfied ANC marshals”.

Regarding the Nasrec Expo Centre, the SSA found that “no security-related incidents have been reported thus far”.

Also no security-related issues had been reported at any of the hotels where ANC delegates were being housed. However, the SSA recommended “security arrangements at some of the hotels accommodating delegates will require reinforcement given reported tension between groups of delegates in some provinces”.

These tensions “could manifest in physical clashes at hotels accommodating delegates during the conference. Thus far the tensions have manifested in court battles.”

Delegates from the Eastern Cape stayed at the City and Town Lodges at OR Tambo airport, the KwaZulu-Natal delegation at Birchwood House in Boksburg and Free State members were accommodated at the Protea Wanderers Illovo, Protea Fire and Ice Melrose and the Courtyard Rosebank. Mpumalanga delegates stayed at the Park Inn in Sandton and the Town Lodge City Lodge.

“Of concern is that all delegates from KZN are to be accommodated at the Birchwood Hotel and Conferencing Centre in Boksburg.

“Given the dissatisfaction among delegates, particularly KZN, Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga regarding the nomination of delegates to attend the conference and presidential candidates to be elected, possible clashes between and within groups cannot be discounted.”

The SSA continued to monitor security at Nasrec until the conclusion of the elective conference and found no imminent threats.

Vuma’s world looked rather different, according to her affidavit to the high court.

In it, she revealed that Crime Intelligence had attempted to release R45-million from the secret account to deal with a “possible national security threat” of some “magnitude”.

Vuma set out how that December a “minister in the Security Cluster” had alerted then- president Jacob Zuma of the alleged national threat. The nature of this threat was not revealed by Vuma in her papers and remains a mystery.

By the end of 2017, Zuma had taken a beating in the courts, on the country’s streets and inside the party. In March, he had been barred from attending the funeral of stalwart Ahmed Kathrada.

That month, then finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, were fired on their return from an investor’s roadshow abroad, sending the markets into a tailspin. This, after Zuma claimed to have received an “intelligence report” on them.

Malusi Gigaba spent 12 months as minister of finance before being shuffled out by the newly elected Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018.

On 23 August 2017, two weeks after Zuma had narrowly survived a sensational secret vote of no confidence in Parliament, he appointed Ngcobo to act as the head of the key SAPS division, Crime Intelligence.

This gave Ngcobo authority over the secret account, along with Sitole as the ultimate accounting officer.

October was no better for Zuma when the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed his and the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA’s)appeal of a high court ruling that the 2009 decision to drop corruption charges had been irrational. At the time, the NPA was headed by Shaun Abrahams.

On 8 December, Judge Dunstan Mlambo in the North Gauteng High Court ruled that the appointment of Abrahams had been unlawful and that the director of public prosecutions should vacate the position forthwith.

On 13 December, Mlambo delivered another blow when he found Zuma’s attempt to review Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendations in her State Capture report had been “ill-advised and reckless”.

In the end, the ANC’s 54th elective conference kicked off on 16 December with an almost three-hour address by outgoing president Zuma, who admonished everyone from alliance partners to the media and civil society for causing “problems” for the ANC.

On 20 December, Zuma and his supporters in the party unexpectedly found their candidate, Dlamini Zuma, pipped to the ANC leadership post by Ramaphosa.

The following day, on 21 December, Judge Billy Mothle granted an order that an inquiry into the fitness of NPA heads and Zuma acolytes Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi be instituted.

Soon after, most of the pointsmen and  women who had been shifted into key positions in law enforcement by Zuma over the years were dropping like flies.

As Ramaphosa was sworn in as the new president of the ANC and once Zuma was forced to resign in February 2018, the heat, hysteria, fear and loathing of Nasrec subsided – at least for a while.

Now with calls to unseal the CR17 campaign emails, the focus on the R45-million in taxpayer’s money that was alleged to be corruptly funnelled to the ANC by Crime Intelligence to buy votes is of vital importance.

As Judge Norman Davis remarked handing down judgment on 13 January 2021, declassifying the documents related to the procurement, that no one in the SAPS, in any of their court submissions, could explain what had become of the “major threat” after the R45-million Secret Service Account heist had been thwarted by IPID.

On 19 December 2017, the SSA found that “with the top six positions announced, the situation in Gauteng remains stable and it is anticipated that the conference will continue without disruptions”.

This is a question Sitole clearly now hopes to address.

How will he navigate his way through a parallel universe where the country’s SSA finds no threat to national security, while Crime Intelligence appears to have uncovered some sort of conspiracy to undermine the country’s democracy with electromagnetic blankets, assassins and tourists posing as journalists.

We do hope that the president offers the floor to the national commissioner so that he can account to the public. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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