SPECIAL REPORT: IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY
Inside Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s State Security Agency-riddled Public Protector’s Office
Former senior officials in the Office of the Public Protector this week provided insight into how Busisiwe Mkhwebane hit the ground running after her appointment to the office in October 2016.
Busisiwe Mkhwebane, like former president Jacob Zuma, stands accused of being a linchpin in the capture of the South African state by an ANC faction loyal to the former president’s “political project”.
Three witnesses testified at the historic parliamentary Section 194 inquiry into Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office that she had brought a sense of urgency to the job and had a clear vision of what she hoped to achieve during her seven-year, non-renewable term.
Mkhwebane’s move from the State Security Agency (SSA) to the Public Protector South Africa (PPSA) had been flagged by opposition parties, the DA as well as the EFF, prior to her appointment but she was a shoo-in nevertheless, thanks to ANC members.
This week we learnt how the Public Protector (PP) “led from the front” and was “a hard taskmaster who would need a person to go beyond the call of duty”, according to her former head of security, Baldwin Neshunzhi, who gave evidence.
Mkhwebane, it emerged, also manipulated and betrayed officials close to her.
Futana Tebele, a senior manager in the PP’s Office, and who had earlier sung her praises, was confronted on the day of his testimony with an SMS, purportedly from Mkhwebane to newly appointed COO Basani Baloyi, that Tebele was “not to be trusted”.
Free State head of the PP’s Office, Sphelo Samuel, after being told for most of the day by Advocate Dali Mpofu, acting for Mkhwebane, that she denied he had ever attended a site visit to the Gupta-linked Vrede Dairy project, produced a photograph as proof.
In it Mkhwebane, wearing baby-pink Valentino Rockstuds to match her suit, can be seen standing next to Samuel.
Neshunzhi also found himself frozen out when the PP sought SSA Director-General Arthur Fraser’s help in sidelining Neshunzhi.
Neshunzhi had applied for the job in 2017, “just like any other person”, and had been involved in business prior to his appointment at the PPSA.
But when he was erroneously blamed for leaks from the office, Mkhwebane recommended in 2018 that he be moved out of his job and “recalled” for further training by the SSA.
However, Neshunzhi told the inquiry that he had nothing to do with the SSA prior to his appointment. It was Mkhwebane who had assumed he had.
Though the SSA training had not been forthcoming, Neshunzhi was transferred to customer services before being sent on “gardening leave”.
Fraser was moved to Correctional Services in April 2018. He was “redeployed” after unprecedented legal action by then Inspector-General (IG) of Intelligence Setlhomamaru Dintwe, who turned to the courts when Fraser revoked his top-secret clearance.
Dintwe was investigating the SSA’s deployment of operatives to ANC party political meetings from 2014 to 2017 and Fraser himself for his role in the Principal Agent Network programme. This was in effect a parallel, non-state intelligence network in service to Jacob Zuma.
The former IG’s court documents also outlined a series of obstructions, delays and apparent attempts by Fraser to starve the office of the funding needed for its oversight work.
As late as 2019 Fraser himself, already National Commissioner of Correctional Services, personally called Neshunzhi to inform him that the PP had complained to him about his “lack of support”.
Even out of office, Fraser seemingly kept his irons in the fire.
A highly securitised office
The committee heard this week how Mkhwebane’s was an office that became highly securitised, with Fraser and other SSA officials in regular contact with the PP and other PPSA senior officials.
The SSA had also been in the process of developing IT systems for the PP’s Office, but these had proved too costly.
Under Thuli Madonsela’s tenure, security vetting had ground to a halt, a process Mkhwebane cranked up on arrival. All staff had to be revetted and Neshunzhi had spearheaded this.
It was during this process that CEO Vussy Mahlangu’s lack of top-secret clearance arose.
This week, Tebele defended Mkhwebane, saying she had been determined to see outcomes, “particularly in the backlog of cases”, and not leave “a mess” for her successor.
One of these cases happened to have been lodged in 2011 by Advocate Paul Hoffman, chair of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa.
Hoffman’s original complaint had sought an investigation into a government agreement with CIEX, a covert investigative body in the UK, in relation to its 1997 investigation into the Reserve Bank’s 1992 R1.2-billion bailout of Bankorp.
Zuma unleashes political chaos
Outside the offices of the PP, the political milieu was about to change radically when, in March 2017, with Mkhwebane in the saddle for only five months, president Jacob Zuma plunged the country into political chaos, firing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in an overnight Cabinet purge.
It was a shot across the barricades.
Two months later, in June, Mkhwebane issued the now-infamous recommendation in her CIEX report of a constitutional amendment to alter the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank (Sarb).
That same month, the Sarb had fined the Bank of Baroda R11-million, a penalty for a steaming pile of ethical transgressions.
Most notable was the bank’s financing of the purchase of a home for president Jacob Zuma’s fourth wife, Bongi Ngema-Zuma, paid for by the Gupta family through Bank of Baroda accounts.
In April, the country’s four big banks had already cut off the taps to the Gupta family and their business enterprises.
An SSA agent, Mahendra Moodley, who had been part of a team working on the IT package for the PP, had reportedly provided Mkhwebane at the time with the text to insert into her CIEX report, which which related to the proposed change to the Constitution.
Senior investigator Tebogo Kekana testified that, in May 2017, an email by Mkhwebane had requested “the SSA to provide input and economist [sic] to change the South African Reserve Bank’s constitutional mandate”.
It was Moodley who had provided this “input”.
This email had not been disclosed as part of the court review of the report, which was ruled invalid and set aside in August 2017. This was a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court in July 2019.
Kekana said that Mkhwebane had met with Fraser, SSA official James Rabulana and then State Security Minister David Mahlobo with regard to the CIEX report, and also that he had been asked not to record this meeting.
The 2018 High Level Panel Review into the SSA later found that Fraser, along with former Ministers of State Security David Mahlobo and Bongani Bongo, had attempted to drive a dystopian “vision 2035” for the agency. This was with Zuma’s blessing.
One of the goals of this new agency was to house and have access to all government department databases.
That the SSA was already working on an IT project for the independent Chapter 9 institution points to this as an attempt to put this goal in place.
Later, when Mkhwebane first approached the Western Cape High Court to ward off her impending impeachment hearing and suspension, she claimed the CIEX report had marked “the start” of her “problems”.
She was being targeted, she said, “for going after the powerful and untouchables”.
In 2018, Mkhwebane produced the now-notorious and discredited political blunt instrument the “SARS Rogue Unit” report deployed to hound Gordhan as well as former SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay and former High-Risk Investigations Unit head Johan van Loggerenberg.
Legal fees costing millions
The lawfare in this matter cost millions, as officials were entangled in endless court cases, appeals and delays.
Mkhwebane spent a total of R67,122,771 on legal fees fighting off the parliamentary impeachment inquiry and presidential suspension over the past two years – R38,878,530 in the 2020/21 financial year and R28,244,241 in 2021/22.
The taps have now been turned off with regard to the office paying for her high court challenge to the impeachment inquiry.
The intimate relationship between the PP, the SSA and Arthur Fraser (who is being celebrated currently by many for exposing an alleged cover-up of a break-in at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s private game farm Phala Phala) was made visible this week.
Fraser, who granted unlawful medical parole to Zuma in September 2021, left a wide and deep SSA footprint at the PP’s Office.
Even after his departure to head Correctional Services, he involved himself in PPSA business.
It was Fraser who on 1 June lodged a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa for the alleged theft of “in excess of four million US dollars” concealed “within the premises of the President’s Phala Phala farm in Waterberg, Limpopo”.
For an institution whose main preoccupation should be the mandatory protection of the public from official abuse, the overemphasis on classification, secrecy and collaboration with the SSA reeks of political gasoline.
It was the PP, the inquiry also heard, who had ordered that the names of ANC politicians – Free State Premier Ace Magashule and MEC for Agriculture Mosebenzi Zwane – not feature in her report into the Gupta-linked Vrede/Estina Dairy project.
Mkhwebane was suspended by Ramaphosa on 9 June. The day before, 8 June, she had launched an investigation into the President after a complaint lodged by the African Transformation Movement in relation to the break-in.
Aluta continua. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.