Why did the former editor-in-chief of South Africa’s biggest and mightiest newspaper allegedly insert a paragraph into a story that a top SARS executive was an apartheid spy – which was false?
Why was then Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt intent on smearing the name of former SARS investigations head Johann van Loggerenberg in August 2014?
And why did a State Security Agency (SSA) spy dictate to Oppelt when to expose Van Loggerenberg as allegedly having leaked the confidential tax information of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema and being the lover of a paid spy?
Is it co-incidental that this came at a time when Van Loggerenberg and his five investigative units at SARS were probing the former president, his son, his nephew, the Guptas, a host of Zuma’s cronies and notorious gangsters linked to the first family?
These are questions that Oppelt and the newspaper’s former investigations unit need to go and answer at both the Nugent and Zondo Commissions.
State Capture evoked the worst qualities in South Africans and subverted men and women across our society. Lawyers were involved; auditors were involved; accountants were involved; journalists were involved.
Zuma enabled State Capture because he hollowed out the law-enforcement agencies, and specifically SARS, the NPA, state intelligence, the Hawks and police crime intelligence.
In every one of the agencies, Zuma appointed a crony at the top who in turn appointed his cronies in key positions. Diligent and experienced officials were worked out or given obscure positions where they sat in small offices not doing anything.
As a result, the state looters could pillage with impunity. There were no consequences; nobody to stop them; nobody to investigate; nobody to prosecute.
The investigations unit at the Sunday Times played a crucial role in the destruction of the Hawks and SARS – and its members need to come forward and explain their roles in arguably the worst journalism that has ever been perpetrated in this country.
In the process, they contributed in destroying the careers of dedicated civil servants and ultimately enabled Tom Moyane to break the tax collector.
Last week, one of the former members of the Sunday Times investigations unit, Stephan Hofstatter, launched his book on the plunder of Eskom in Johannesburg. He obviously thought that his contribution to the hollowing out of SARS had been long forgotten.
Instead of admiring handshakes, Hofstatter was greeted by protesters with placards saying that he was a Tom Moyane stooge and a State Capture crony.
Then stood up Hofstatter’s worst nightmare: former SARS group executive for planning, Pete Richer, who was one of Moyane’s “rogue unit” victims and forced out of the tax collector in May 2015.
You have destroyed lives and reputations, Richer told Hofstatter. You and a team at the Sunday Times wrote fiction to get rid of hard-working civil servants.
In response to a question on whether he would be willing to testify in front of the Nugent commission of inquiry into tax administration, Hofstatter said he wanted to move on from the episode.
I’m afraid it is not going to be that simple for Hofstatter and other team members (the unit has since been disbanded). They will be haunted by their SARS rogue unit reportage until they come clean.
There is already evidence that they were stooges that were played by elements in the intelligence services to get rid of top officials that posed a threat to Zuma, his family and his friends.
The story started on 10 August 2014 when City Press and the Sunday Times devoted their front pages to a sordid romance between Johann van Loggerenberg and a Pretoria attorney, Belinda Walter.
“Sex, SARS and rogue spies,” said City Press.
I worked for the newspaper at the time and I wrote that SSA agents had concocted a plot to remove the SARS top structure.
In the story, I exposed Walter as a paid SSA agent that was probably “planted” on Van Loggerenberg to discredit him and extract him from SARS.
State intelligence was not just intent on removing top executives at SARS, but also targeted other top civil servant that posed a threat to Zuma’s cronies.
Among them were senior NPA prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach and Hawks head Lt-Gen Anwa Dramat.
The Sunday Times splashed with “Love affair rocks SARS”. Their exposé centred on Walter’s allegations that her former lover was dishonest and corrupt.
They failed to mention that Walter was an SSA agent and a self-confessed liar, even though they had known about it for six months.
We must go back to February of that year when Walter and Van Loggerenberg had a lover’s squabble. Intent on revenge, she summoned her former clients, tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti and other executives of Carnilinx, to a meeting.
Also present was Sunday Times journalist Malcolm Rees, known to both Mazzotti and Walter. She confessed that she was a SSA spy and said to those present that Van Loggerenberg had revealed confidential taxpayers’ information to her. This was a crime.
The Sunday Times would have published her revelations the next week, but hours after the meeting, Walter had second thoughts about going public.
She withdrew her allegations against Van Loggerenberg and said to Oppelt her claims were based on “rumours in the industry”. She apologised for having defamed him and said she had lied about certain things.
She then attempted to blackmail the newspaper by saying she would expose the wrongdoing of certain of its journalists. Oppelt withdrew the stories.
But six months later, in their “Love affair rocks SARS” story, the Sunday Times repeated Walter’s lies of six months earlier as fact. They made no mention that she had earlier admitted that the allegations were not true and that she was a liar.
In the story, the newspaper branded Van Loggerenberg a “former apartheid undercover police agent”, without a shred of evidence.
After I wrote in The President’s Keepers about the role of the Sunday Times in the demise of SARS, Malcolm Rees – the author of the “Love affair rocks SARS” story – demanded a retraction. I told him he would not get one.
His defence for labelling Van Loggerenberg a spy was that Oppelt had allegedly inserted the line into his story. This was apparently a reason for his resignation a few months later.
There is evidence that Walter dictated or at least influenced the reportage of the Sunday Times – probably on the instructions of her intelligence masters.
We know today that Walter was an agent at the economic intelligence unit of the SSA and that this unit, alongside the special operations unit, concocted the downfall of Van Loggerenberg, acting SARS commissioner Ivan Pillay, Richer and others.
There is a telling memo that Walter sent to SARS in July 2014. After she had broken up with Van Loggerenberg, she sent various memos and documents to SARS in which she accused him of a host of crimes.
In one of them, she detailed a meeting with the SSA’s acting head of economic intelligence, Ferdi Fryer, at a Pretoria restaurant. She said he “represents interests within the ANC who would like to see the SARS ruling structure replaced, as well as the minister of finance”.
Days after Zuma had appointed his old crony Tom Moyane as SARS commissioner in October 2014, Hofstatter and the Sunday Times investigative unit published their first rogue unit “scoop”.
“SARS bugged Zuma”, screamed the newspaper’s lead story. It revealed that one of the investigative units at SARS had gone rogue, broke into Zuma’s home and planted listening devices.
The story didn’t tell its readers when the break-in took place, but it must have been in 2005 or 2006 – before the unit even existed.
The “exposé” carried a photograph of Van Loggerenberg, but he became the head of the unit only at the beginning of 2008.
This was followed by a host of stories that made wild and unsubstantiated allegations, like that the “rogue unit” ran a brothel, infiltrated politicians, ran front companies with secret funds of R500-million and spied on prominent taxpayers.
Reacting to the Sunday Times exposés, Moyane suspended Van Loggerenberg. He was followed by Ivan Pillay and Peter Richer, who the newspaper claimed were the “brains behind the rogue unit”. They were followed by the likes of Adrian Lackay and Yolisa Pikie.
Their departures at SARS were followed by a host of resignations of skilled, experienced and dedicated senior managers and officials.
Moyane disbanded all five investigations units at SARS – leaving the tax collector with no capacity to go after organised criminals and extract revenue from the informal or criminal economy.
Officials working for the investigation units were scattered across SARS. Many sat in little offices doing nothing. Many resigned and several were suspended.
With the top executive of SARS gone, Moyane shifted his own cronies – like the notorious Jonas Makwakwa – into key positions.
SARS’s investigation into Jacob Zuma stopped.
The investigations into Edward Zuma and Khulubuse Zuma stopped.
The investigation into the Guptas stopped.
The investigation into several Zuma cronies stopped.
The tax bills of several notorious organised criminals with links to the first family and the ANC were never concluded.
Among them was Roberg Huang who had received a tax bill of R1-billion and Mark Lifman, who owed SARS R388-million.
The Sunday Times continued relentlessly with their “SARS rogue unit” narrative and published more than 30 articles detailing the ‘shenanigans’ of Pillay, Van Loggerenberg and their men and women.
It was journalism at its worst. In most cases, their subjects weren’t asked for comment or not given enough time to respond. They stated everything as fact and the word “alleged” or the phrase “we were made to believe” disappeared from their vocabulary.
This was not “normal” journalism. This was contrived, manufactured, engineered and machinated by a “higher” hand to serve a “higher” end.
In February 2015, senior Sunday Times journalist Pearlie Joubert resigned and said in an affidavit afterwards that she was not “willing to be party to practices at the Sunday Times which I verily believed to have been unethical and immoral”.
She charged that the stories that were published were false and appeared to have been “an orchestrated effort by persons to advance untested allegations in a public arena”.
The fact that the Sunday Times has formally retracted the stories and apologised for their effect in April 2016 is not enough.
Oppelt, Hofstatter and the two other unit members, Piet Rampedi and Mzilikazi wa Afrika, must tell the Nugent Commission of Inquiry into SARS who the hidden hand behind their disgraceful conduct was.
The role of the investigation unit of the Sunday Times in State Capture doesn’t stop at SARS. There is evidence that they were also complicit in the destruction of the Hawks.
Hofstatter and wa Afrika were among the Sunday Times journalists who in 2011 and 2012 wrote “exposés” that led to the demise of the three top Hawks: commander Lt-Gen Anwa Dramat, Gauteng Hawks head Maj-Gen Shadrack Sibiya and KZN Hawks head Maj-Gen Johan Booysen.
In all three cases, Zuma’s keepers drove them from their offices, allegedly by leaking “incriminating” dockets to the Sunday Times. Once the dirt against them had been dished, they were suspended and faced trumped-up charges.
In 2011, Dramat and Sibiya ordered murder, kidnapping, assault, fraud and corruption investigations into disgraced police crime intelligence head Lt-Gen Richard Mdluli.
Mdluli is a self-confessed Zuma crony and therefore Dramat and Sibiya had signed their own death warrants by taking him on. They had to go.
The investigations unit of the Sunday Times led the attack on Dramat and Sibiya’s integrity. In October 2011, its headline screamed: “Sent to die”.
According to the newspaper a group of policemen under the command of Dramat and Sibiya had conducted illegal “renditions” in cahoots with their Zimbabwean counterparts.
According to the story, the Hawks arrested four Zimbabweans in Johannesburg that were wanted in Zimbabwe. They were driven to the Beitbridge border post. Two were handed to the Zimbabwean police. At least one died.
A subsequent affidavit made by top Hawks investigator Colonel Kobus Roelofse – one of the Richard Mdluli investigators – raised doubts about the credibility of the story.
Roelofse said a crime intelligence official told him that he overheard senior crime intelligence officers discussing “the placement of a newspaper article relating to Dramat and Sibiya”.
The Sunday Times reacted angrily to the accusations that their journalists might have been compromised and filed a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) request for evidence of police payment made to their journalists.
The police said there was none. One of the affidavits on which the newspaper relied was made by a brigadier in crime intelligence who said he had checked the registers and files and found nothing.
Did the newspaper honestly expect a crime intelligence officer to spill the beans about the unit’s collaborators in the media and expose their dirty tricks in public?
The consequences of the Sunday Times story were devastating. Although both Dramat and Sibiya were cleared by the police watchdog IPID, they were suspended time and again and eventually resigned.
The departure of Dramat made way for Lt-Gen Berning Ntlemeza to assume control of the Hawks. He was irregularly appointed and in 2017, the High Court found him not fit to occupy the position.
In the three years that Ntlemeza – a close ally of Mdluli – commanded the Hawks, he devastated the unit. By the end of 2015, there had been a 60% decline in arrests and an even greater drop in conviction rates.
Experienced and skilled Hawks investigators left in their droves. Ntlemeza appointed his cronies in key position to make sure that there were no consequences for the state looters. They could steal with impunity.
KZN Hawks head Johan Booysen became a target of Zuma’s keepers because he was intent on charging KZN businessmen Toshan Panday alongside corrupt policemen with fraud and corruption.
During the investigation, the police reportedly legally intercepted Panday’s telephone calls. The conversations were allegedly replete with Panday’s boasts about his relationship with the Zuma family and, specifically, his claim to have paid towards “houses at Nkandla”. He was also a business partner of Edward Zuma.
A corrupt police colonel tried to bribe Booysen with R2 million and confronted him with images of dead bodies on his computer. Booysen recognised the images as crime scenes, some of which he had attended.
The policeman told Booysen that in return for the pictures, he must alter the report on the Panday investigation to ensure that the case was thrown out in court. Booysen refused and instead, arrested the cop.
In December 2011, the Sunday Times plastered on their front page a photograph of gun-toting and drinking policemen celebrating the killing of five robbery suspects near Camperdown in KZN in January 2009.
The headline said it all: “Shoot to kill: Inside a South African police death squad”. The exposé evoked images of the apartheid-era police death squad at Vlakplaas – and Johan Booysen was branded, almost like Eugene de Kock or Dirk Coetzee, as the commander of this modern-day bunch of killer policemen.
According to the newspaper the Cato Manor organised crime unit had committed “scores of assassinations, some in retaliation for suspected cop killings and others related to ongoing taxi wars”.
The news report raised serious questions about the legality of the many shootouts that the Cato Manor unit – one of the Hawks clusters that fell under Booysen – had with gangsters, robbers, heisters and killers.
The unit had an incredibly high “kill rate” and therefore the questions were legitimate, although there is evidence that the scandal was deliberately exposed and planted by police sources to create a pretext for action against Booysen.
Booysen said the images that the Sunday Times published were the same as those that the corrupt cop had showed him on his computer. He was however portrayed as a hero who had tried to blow the whistle on the alleged atrocities.
The policemen were charged with murder and Booysen with racketeering.
Following their court appearance, Booysen and some of his men sat for several weeks to study and investigate the evidence against them. They identified 379 pages of mistakes and irregularities. In the 23 dockets of 500 pages, including attachments, Booysen featured only twice and was mentioned by only three of the 290 witnesses, who confirmed his presence at crime scenes – after the action.
Durban High Court judge Trevor Gorven agreed in 2014 when he declared the prosecution of Booysen invalid. He said the charges didn’t meet the barest of minimum requirements.
Booysen has spent the last five years of his police career almost on permanent suspension, even though he was exonerated at his police disciplinary case.
But Zuma’s creatures were intent on keeping Booysen out of office. In February 2016, former NPA head Shaun Abrahams re-charged both Booysen and the Cato Manor policemen. It was the same charges, the same evidence, the same indictment.
Abrahams’ sloppiness is reflected in in the fact that one of those he charged had in the meantime died.
Booysen and the Cato Manor policemen have appeared in court almost 20 times, just for the NPA to request a postponement every time.
It’s not good enough for Hofstatter to say that he is sorry for the damage he had caused. An apology is hollow without doing something to rectify the wrong.
After the publication of The President’s Keepers, Hofstatter interrupted a studio discussion between me and 702’s Eusebius McKaiser to defend his book. In ended very badly for him.
Mzilikazi wa Afrika was also on his way to the 702 studio but was stopped by the Sunday Times from doing so.
After The President’s Keepers was published, the third member of the unit, Piet Rampedi, threatened to sue me for defamation. I invited him to go ahead, after which I never heard from him again.
I don’t know what happened to Phylicia Oppelt, but it is safe to say there isn’t much remorse among the Sunday Times investigations unit and their former editor.
It will be unusual for journalists to testify before a commission, but there are clearly instances where they weren’t reporters but propagandists.
They will claim confidentiality of sources, which should be sacrosanct in journalism.
But surely, when a source abuses your trust, lies to you and uses you for ulterior purposes he/she is not entitled to any protection.
As much as we expect the state looters to confess their sins, so should those that were pawns in expediating their nefarious actions. DM