South Africa

GOVERNMENT PREMISES

How corruption and security failures opened the doors (and smashed the windows) of SA’s state buildings to criminals

A rail-mounted gantry crane on the dockside at the Port of Durban, operated by Transnet on 25 May 2018. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Parliament in Cape Town continues to burn on 3 January 2022, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) / Adobe Stock | The windows of the Constitutional Court were allegedly damaged by a 36-year-old man in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on 5 January 2022. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

The fire that ravaged Parliament raises critical questions about the security of state institutions and is exceptionally worrying when viewed with other incidents, including burglaries at high-level police and judicial offices, the State Capture Commission and targeting of the Constitutional Court.

There have been several incidents that point to serious security breaches at buildings housing some of South Africa’s most critical and confidential information relating to crimes and those in the fight against crime.

In a country where State Capture has already seen the gutting of power provider Eskom and the degradation of railway services, affecting key aspects of residents’ lives, this is exceptionally worrying.

Add to this mix the beleaguered and politically warped police and intelligence services, along with cyberattacks on the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, as well as on Transnet and its division which operates SA’s biggest ports, and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that South Africa could be under siege.

Let’s not forget the 2021 July unrest following the temporary jailing of former president Jacob Zuma.

In one of the latest worrying incidents, a man was arrested on Wednesday for allegedly using a hammer to smash windows at the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein.

“It is reported that police fired a warning shot after the suspect continued to break the windows even after being ordered to stop,” a police statement said.

Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola said that “any person who attacks the Constitutional Court – or any other of our democratic institutions for that matter – is attacking democracy and what it represents”.

Just days before the ConCourt incident, a fire broke out in Parliament in Cape Town and burned for more than two days. The legislature has been severely damaged.

A suspect was arrested in connection with the fire. A second less extensive fire occurred at Parliament in March 2021.

While more about the suspect is yet to emerge in court, there have been claims the man is homeless and being used as a scapegoat for the incident. There is also speculation that he may be involved in a broader plot to destabilise the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was due to deliver the State of the Nation Address in Parliament on 10 February, but given the damages to the building, another plan will need to be made.

On Tuesday, 4 January, in between the Constitutional Court attack and the Parliament fire, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo released the first of three reports from the State Capture Commission.

The commission focused heavily on Zuma and its first report made critical findings in relation to him. This could create the rather sinister impression, whether founded or not, that Zuma loyalists could somehow be behind recent criminal incidents at state buildings and facilities.

Here’s a look at other incidents in which government premises have been targeted:

18 March 2017 – The Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ) in Midrand is broken into and computers containing information about judges are stolen.

14 April 2020 – A suspect is arrested after the Hawks’ offices in Bellville, Cape Town, are burgled. Flash drives are among the items stolen. There were several break-ins at the building over two years.

18 April 2021 – The office of the State Capture Commission of Inquiry in Parktown, Johannesburg, is burgled. A computer and two monitors are stolen.

Between 5 and 8 November 2021 – A Hawks office in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, is broken into. Thieves gain entrance through a window and make off with confiscated cocaine worth about R2-million.

2 January 2022 – A devastating fire breaks out at Parliament in Cape Town and a suspect is arrested within 48 hours. Questions are raised about the level of security and condition of fire-fighting equipment at the legislature.

5 January 2022 – A suspect is arrested for allegedly using a hammer to smash windows at the Constitutional Court buildings in Braamfontein. Police reportedly fired a warning shot during the incident.

On the morning of 18 March 2017, the OCJ was burgled in Midrand. Mogoeng Mogoeng was chief justice – a position Zuma appointed him to – until late 2021.

A Justice and Constitutional Development Department statement at the time of the burglary said: “At this stage, it can be confirmed that a number of computers were stolen from one office at the OCJ premises. 

“The type of information that was potentially stored on these computers comprises human resource information of judges and employees of the OCJ.”

Like many other government premises, the statement said, the OCJ offices were “guarded by a private security company”.

But there’s a catch when it comes to private security – Daily Maverick previously reported that there were concerns criminals had infiltrated certain parts of the industry.

There are also suspicions that rogue intelligence officers in the state could be involved in some private security companies.

The statement about the OCJ burglary continued: “It is also important to note that government has already started to put in place measures to strengthen security at all critical infrastructure of the State.”

Four days after the burglary, police issued a statement saying three men had been arrested and items including unlicensed firearms and fake identity documents were seized.

Acting SAPS national commissioner Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane condemned the burglary.

“I am urging the people of South Africa to continue to work closely with our members to ensure that incidents which seek to undermine our Constitution must not have a place in our society,” he said at the time.

Phahlane was subsequently – and ironically, given his words – dismissed from the police after being suspended on charges of misconduct.

At the time, police urged the fourth suspect in this particular burglary, Nkosinathi Msimango, to report to them. And he did.

In October 2017, roughly seven months after the break-in, TimesLive reported that Msimango, the only suspect charged with the burglary, would not be prosecuted.

So that was that.

In 2020, it emerged that the offices of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, better known as the Hawks, were targeted in Bellville, Cape Town – and that it was not the first time this had happened.

Areas around Cape Town are notorious for gang activity and the city is home to an incredibly divided police service. There have been many claims of cops (and in some cases politicians) siding with gangsters.

A suspect, Brandon Okkers, was arrested for the Hawks burglary in Bellville on 14 April 2020 after the offices were targeted a few days earlier.

News24 had reported that Okkers was a homeless man who based himself near the offices (this is similar to claims about the suspect arrested for the Parliament fire).

At the time, Hawks spokesperson Philani Nkwalase alleged that Okkers was found with items belonging to Hawks members.

“The investigation is currently focused into linking the suspect to other break-ins on the same building during the last two years,” Nkwalase had said.

“In all these break-ins, a number of items ranging from flash drive, hard drive and private personal items of individual members were taken.”

It was not immediately clear what became of the case against Okkers.

A year later – in April 2021 – the State Capture Commission’s offices in Parktown, Johannesburg, were burgled and a computer and two laptops stolen.

Police offered a cash reward for information leading to the arrest and successful prosecution of the burglars.

“The investigating team has at this stage gathered evidence which indicates that at least three suspects were involved in the robbery,” police spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters said at the time.

“Police have subsequently been able to extract from security camera footage, clear images of two of the three suspects.”

Despite the incident and other security issues, the Zondo Commission pressed ahead with its work, this week releasing the first of its three reports into State Capture.

Just a few months ago, in late 2021, another Hawks hub was targeted.

The Hawks’ Serious Organised Crime offices in Port Shepstone were burgled between 5 and 8 November. Suspects forced open a window to get into the building.

“One of the safes in the office, which were used to store exhibits, was tampered with,” Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo said.

“The suspects stole 541kg of cocaine drugs to the street value of R200,000,000 and ransacked the office where safes were kept.”

Suspicions of rogue police and intelligence involvement in international crimes, including drug dealing, underpin the theft of cocaine. No suspects were arrested and an investigation was launched into the incident.

In South Africa, which is still struggling to recover from the ravages of State Capture, premises, where crimes are meant to be administratively dealt with, have become crime scenes themselves.

All these incidents, paired with what has happened recently at Parliament and the Constitutional Court, seem to suggest that the state is failing in its duty to safeguard vitally important locations.

It also implies that the state is grappling to maintain basic law and order as random and opportunistic attacks are carried out. The possibility does remain that the government is quite possibly up against something much more sinister. DM

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