South Africa can pay tribute to top investigator Frank Dutton by honouring his evidence of State Capture
The death of one of South Africa’s finest investigators comes as another wake-up call to recommit to speeding up investigations and prosecutions he worked on.
‘Everything a real policeman should be” is how Frank Dutton has been described.
Dutton (72), who died on Thursday from a stroke, was, however, much more than his badge, or his 38 years of service in government. Rather, the stand-out investigator is being remembered for his fight for justice and his moral commitment to investigate and expose wrongdoing even when it meant swimming against the tide or sticking his neck out.
He investigated even when targets were his colleagues within the police force. He also worked to expose his employer, the apartheid state, for “Third Force” activities – the deliberate but clandestine campaign to fuel the surge of political violence at the time, especially in what was then Natal where Dutton was based after exiting Police College in Pretoria in 1966.
Among the prominent cases he worked on was the murder investigation and subsequent conviction with a life sentence of IFP leader Samuel Jamile. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found Jamile accountable for gross violations of human rights of Caprivi trainees in Clermont township.
Dutton also worked on the Trust Feed case. The landmark 1991 case saw police captain Brian Mitchell and seven other police officers stand trial on 11 charges of murder and eight of attempted murder. The case revealed the reality of state-sponsored violence and for the first time brought high-ranking officers to book.
In the mid-1990s, Dutton established and headed the Investigation Task Unit to investigate hit squads within the then KwaZulu police and served on the Goldstone Commission investigating political violence.
Judge Richard Goldstone said of Dutton: “He is a man without strong political feelings but with a deep belief in the need for complete integrity in police investigations, regardless of the consequences.”
Dutton’s long-time colleague in the police and later fellow private investigator, Cliffy Marion, says: “We first met in 1984, so we go way back. Frank was an absolutely honest person with the highest integrity ever, despite the times. He sacrificed organisational culture and didn’t care about career suicide. What drove him was integrity, honesty and evidence – if the evidence suggested we go that route then we would take that route.”
Marion remembers Dutton’s unassuming, down-to-earth nature and how he “treated everyone as an equal and didn’t care about rank”. A man, he says, as comfortable in the senior positions he held at the United Nations and also as head of the Scorpions as he was in the field, investigating in deep rural KZN where a lunch meal of tomatoes, brown bread and Cokes was about as good as it got.
Dutton’s meticulous determination and ability to see a case through to the end made police work a weapon for building strong cases for justice for victims, not a box-ticking exercise.
His international career was launched in 1996 when President Nelson Mandela seconded him to assist in investigations into genocide‚ war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Croatia at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
By the end of 1997, he was appointed to the tribunal’s office in Sarajevo and was promoted to the rank of commander, overseeing all field investigations in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. He also established investigation units in Tirana, Albania and Skopje, Macedonia, and that work would lead to indictments issued against the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, for crimes against humanity.
He returned to South Africa two years later to head the new Directorate of Special Operations (the Scorpions). He remained in this position until his retirement in April 2004, clocking up 38 years of service.
Retirement, though, didn’t see him slow down, with his appointments in subsequent years including appointment in 2005 to the UN Mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate incidents of sexual abuse against women. In 2007 he recovered SAM-6 missiles in Afghanistan on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme.
He also investigated the embezzlement of funds from the malaria programme of the Global Fund in Kyrgyzstan, India and Africa in 2009 and 2010. In September 2011 he was appointed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to conduct an assessment of the Seychelles Police Service. His work there included significant success in curbing international piracy incidents in the waters surrounding the island.
In South Africa his retirement years work included serving on a panel to review evidence against South African Police Service National Commissioner Jackie Selebi in 2007. Dutton also served on a task team investigating rhino poaching in KZN and in 2018 he took up a role as investigator for the Zondo Commission and joined the Investigating Directorate into State Capture in 2021.
In its statement, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) called Dutton one of “South Africa’s fearless warriors for justice and the rule of law” and the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture called Dutton: “One of the best detectives and investigators that this country has produced. This country benefitted immensely from his skill and dedication.”
True to nature though, Dutton was just this January setting up meetings, strategising to compel the NPA to commit to prompt action and prosecutions in many stalled TRC cold cases. Dutton had been working with the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) since 2003 on reopening these inquiries.
The executive director of the FHR and former TRC commissioner, Yasmin Sooka, says: “We were just talking about meeting this month because Frank was absolutely determined that we fight through on these TRC cases.”
She remembers their many coffee meetings over their years of working together. She talks of his warm, easy manner and readiness to help. And of his triumph in losing weight on his doctors’ instructions in the past few years but still having a weakness for Florentine biscuits.
“He had this way of winning people over when he interviewed them because he had so much integrity. He was what a real policeman should be: a sense of commitment to investigate criminality and to put cases together. He also had moral courage to take a stand.
“Frank put such an enormous amount of work into these TRC cases; we owe it to him to make sure that we carry on with this work, to build accountability in our country and to ensure victims are able to access the truth.”
Dutton lived in Hillcrest, KZN, and is survived by his wife, Vanessa. DM
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