GUNS TO GANGS
Class action pending: Families of those shot with cop-smuggled firearms to take on police
In October 2016, Major-General Jeremy Vearey, who was controversially fired last week, warned that if cop-smuggled guns were linked to shootings, it would prove the police’s ‘civil liability’ to South Africans. His words are now coming true as families of those maimed and murdered with these firearms may sue the police.
A coalition of NGOs coordinated by Gunfree South Africa is working on a class action lawsuit that could see families of victims shot with firearms that were smuggled from police to gangsters take on the police service and its bosses in court.
Most of the shootings occurred in Cape Flats suburbs in the Western Cape, South Africa’s most gang-ravaged province, between 2010 and 2016.
Daily Maverick has confirmed the pending class action and understands that by early next year the coalition dealing with it will be ready to approach a court and set out what it plans to do.
It is further understood the potential legal action will focus on holding the South African Police Service (SAPS) to account and try to ensure compensation for victims’ families, and survivors who were shot with the firearms.
Previously it emerged, via a labour court matter involving top police officers who investigated the issue, that between 2010 and 2016 in the Western Cape, firearms smuggled from police officers to gangsters had been used in 1,666 murders and 1,403 attempted murders.
Horrifically, 261 children had been shot.
Jeremy Vearey, the major-general who was fired from the police service last week over a series of Facebook posts that certain police officers deemed disrespectful and threatening, spoke to Daily Maverick about the lawsuit late on Wednesday.
“I understand that a class action will be embarked on by civil society and NGOs to litigate [against] the SAPS where such firearms in our custody were used to kill and maim any citizens, particularly women and children,” he said.
“I want to state clearly, I support that action and I will support it when it comes to court.”
Daily Maverick independently confirmed the pending lawsuit.
Vearey, in a hard-hitting statement about his dismissal, which National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole signed off on last Friday, referred to the issue of police officers smuggling firearms, as well as other corruption he claims has been uncovered within the police service.
He made it clear he was speaking as “Jeremy Vearey who has been dismissed from the South African Police Service” in response to an SAPS statement issued about his dismissal on behalf of Sitole.
Vearey said that while his dismissal had been dealt with speedily via an expeditious process — which differed from a usual disciplinary process in that no witnesses were called — police bosses were not tackling critical issues affecting South Africa with the same vigour.
One of these issues, he said, was linked to the case involving former police colonel Chris Prinsloo, who admitted to selling around 2,000 firearms that were meant to have been destroyed, allegedly to a businessman who was accused of smuggling them to gangsters.
The Prinsloo case was further linked to Project Impi, an investigation that focused heavily on guns being smuggled from within the police to gangsters.
Project Impi began in December 2013, launched by Vearey and his colleague Lieutenant-General Peter Jacobs, who at one stage was head of Crime Intelligence in the Western Cape.
It resulted in Prinsloo’s arrest and in 2016 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in the saga. (He has since become a State witness.)
But in June 2016, as the investigation was still unfolding, both Vearey and Jacobs were suddenly transferred from their positions in the police service in the Western Cape.
They said this effectively derailed Project Impi.
Vearey and Jacobs approached the Labour Court in Cape Town and were successful in having their transfers set aside, even though they were not immediately reinstated to their positions.
In his affidavit on this matter, Vearey had, in October 2016, warned: “What had [also] become obvious to us by that stage was the potential for civil liability on the part of the SAPS. They had been in possession of thousands of firearms which they were supposed to destroy. Instead, they were released to gangs.
“We warned the National Commissioner and the Minister of this potential civil liability. It gave rise to an urgent need for investigation and the optimal deployment of SAPS resources. Instead, we have been transferred and [Project] Impi has been decimated on the orders of SAPS management. This has the opposite effect to what is in the interest of SAPS, their constitutional mandate and the public interest.”
In his affidavit, Vearey had further said police were obligated to solve crimes committed with Project Impi-identified firearms.
“However, SAPS is now compromised,” he said.
“It has a duty to link the stolen firearms ballistically to murders committed with them. Should SAPS carry out this duty it will prove its own civil liability to inhabitants of South Africa who are killed or injured by these firearms.”
In 2013 — the year Project Impi was started — Sitole was the deputy national commissioner of police.
By 2016, the time it was effectively derailed (according to Vearey and Jacobs), the acting national police commissioner was Khomotso Phahlane — who subsequently went on to be arrested in a fraud case relating to a multimillion-rand blue lights tender.
Jacob Zuma was president during this period.
Speaking on Wednesday, Vearey said “the malfeasance involved” with gun smuggling via police officers and the failure of police bosses to act “to bring about corrective measures, is damning”.
He said that at the very start of Project Impi he and Jacobs explained “the crisis that we faced” and had also proposed what could be done to rectify the situation; however, this was not followed through.
Vearey said that after Prinsloo was sentenced in 2016, the National Prosecuting Authority issued directions about other lines of investigation that needed pursuing.
This included “firearms injected into taxi conflict in KwaZulu-Natal”.
However, Vearey said, when he and Jacobs were transferred in June 2016, these investigative routes ended.
Vearey on Wednesday also referred to how police management allegedly failed to act on “the smuggling of military firearms from the SA National Defence Force [SANDF]”.
These firearms, he alleged, ended up in conflict zones where the SANDF was active, but in the hands of “rebel forces who were shooting us with our own guns”.
Vearey’s dismissal from the police force last week — which the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union was dealing with on his behalf — is the latest in what comes across as a disciplinary war within the police service.
Recently, he and two other police officers from the Western Cape, all former uMkhonto weSizwe members and with deep histories in the ANC, were the focus of disciplinary proceedings.
The other two officers were Jacobs and Western Cape Anti-Gang Unit head André Lincoln.
Jacobs was previously national Crime Intelligence head but was suspended in December last year, then allowed to return to work in March, but in another position — head of the police’s Inspectorate.
He was suspended over allegations about irregular personal protective equipment procurement and the Secret Service Account.
A disciplinary proceeding was launched against him, which he managed to halt via an order granted by the Labour Court in Johannesburg.
Jacobs previously countered that he had uncovered fraud relating to the Secret Service Account and that other Crime Intelligence officers were suspects in this matter.
Some within policing circles therefore viewed his reposting as Inspectorate head as a sidelining to move him away from what he had allegedly uncovered.
More recently, Jacobs was the focus of a disciplinary hearing along with Lincoln.
This hearing related to Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear, who was murdered outside his Bishop Lavis home in Cape Town on 18 September 2020.
At the time of his death, Kinnear had been a member of Lincoln’s Anti-Gang Unit.
With Lincoln, he was investigating underworld crimes, including allegations that police officers in Gauteng were allegedly fraudulently creating firearm licences for suspects.
This was very similar to what Project Impi had uncovered.
Following Kinnear’s murder, Jacobs and Lincoln faced allegations about the lack of security for Kinnear in the run-up to his assassination.
They both therefore became the focus of disciplinary proceedings.
However, both managed to have the labour court (in Johannesburg in the case of Jacobs, and Cape Town in Lincoln’s case) order that the disciplinary proceedings be halted pending their referral of the matter to the Safety and Security Sectoral Bargaining Council (SSSBC).
This SSSBC hearing was set to be heard on 1 July.
Both Lincoln and Jacobs, in affidavits in their labour court actions, said they felt “persecuted” within the police.
Jacobs felt he was being targeted because of protected disclosures he had made about the Kinnear matter, including what he viewed as a “rogue” unit of Crime Intelligence officers operating in the Western Cape, and other alleged wrongdoing by SAPS members.
Lincoln felt he was being targeted for pointing out failures of duty by senior colleagues.
On Wednesday evening, Vearey said he had been the employee representative for both Jacobs and Lincoln in disciplinary hearings.
“I will not stand for the same thing that’s happened to me in this process to happen to General Jacobs and General Lincoln,” he said.
“They have walked a path with me that no others have walked, least of all anyone in national management of police.”
Referring to the disciplinary hearings against Jacobs and Lincoln and their having to get the labour court to order the police to halt these, Vearey said that he “could not stand by and allow… taxpayers’ money to be used in vanity and power-mongering litigation”.
He said it was time for senior police bosses to be held individually responsible for corruption within police ranks.
“It’s time they are held to account.” DM
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