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Hlophe and Goliath: Chronicles of a death foretold?

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Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

The allegations surrounding Judge John Hlophe, Judge Patricia Goliath and a hitman from KwaZulu-Natal are a microcosm of the broader crisis within the criminal justice system. A culture of impunity and political expediency has led to a seamless integration of criminal and political interests that increasingly threaten South Africa’s future

It was only a matter of time before KwaZulu-Natal’s little assassination problem spilt over to the rest of South Africa. 

The alleged hit on Western Cape Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath, allegedly ordered by her boss, Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe – using an awaiting trial cop accused of a political killing – is merely the latest progression in a trend that many hoped would remain conveniently confined to KZN’s clichéd “killing fields”. But the writing was on the wall.

The accused mastermind behind the KZN hit on Sindiso Magaqa implicated in alleged plot to kill Judge Goliath

The last words on page 423 of the Moerane Commission of Inquiry’s report into KZN’s political killings, released in September 2018, were:

“The evidence presented is not confined to Kwazulu-Natal but has similarities with incidents of the murder of politicians in other provinces, and the underlying causes of the murder of politicians are potentially present in all provinces. The culture and network of patronage and impunity does not stop provincially but stretches nationally and the problem must therefore be … addressed nationally.”

The commission found “serious weaknesses in the entire criminal justice system”, “evidence that state institutions, particularly security institutions, [were] being manipulated” and “criminal elements recruited … to achieve political ends … resulting in a complex matrix of criminal and political associations”.

And “there was ample evidence that acts of omission and commission by the police, through incompetence or political manipulation, have led to a loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system”.

This was “impairing the public’s willingness to engage with democracy”, the commission noted.

But the Moerane Commission and its findings were always going to be dead in the water. As veteran investigative reporter Greg Ardé wrote in his incisive book (compulsory reading for anyone labouring under the misapprehension that South Africa is still a “nascent democracy”) – “War Party – How the ANC’s political killings are breaking South Africa” – “Like that of many others, the commission’s report will probably gather dust in a government office somewhere – tragically – because it is a chilling indictment of the ruling ANC and the mafia-style politics the party has incubated in KZN and which is spilling beyond the province’s borders. It threatens to be the harbinger of a fully-fledged gangster state where might is right and the big guns call the shots.” 

We have been here before

A few months after the commission’s report was released, a series of WhatApp messages revealed a plot to kill senior state advocate Dorian Paver, the prosecutor in the trial dubbed the Glebelands Eight – a Durban Central SAPS detective and seven alleged hitmen accomplices – charged with nine counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, possession of a prohibited firearm and ammunition, racketeering and extortion.

The accused, allegedly led by Sergeant Bhekukwazi Louis Mdweshu, were implicated in a wave of violence that engulfed Glebelands hostel in Umlazi from 2014 until their arrests in December 2017. The violence left more than 130 dead, including political office bearers, taxi bosses, community leaders and seven key witnesses across KZN.   

The Glebelands Eight case revealed direct police involvement in political hit squads and highlighted the ease with which state-issued firearms – including automatic rifles – are procured. It also exposed complicity at senior police management level and systemic dysfunction within existing accountability mechanisms. 

This case is a microcosm of the broader crisis within the criminal justice system, revealing a culture of impunity and political expediency that has led to the seamless integration of criminal and political interests which increasingly threaten South Africa’s future.

The worsening situation has now been laid bare by allegations that a judge president allegedly ordered a hit on a fellow judge, using former police officer Sibonelo Myeza, the accused in the murder of Umzimkhulu ANC leader Sindiso Magaqa, to carry out the murder.

Just as some of us warned at the beginning of the Glebelands meltdown, this deadly nexus of state, organised crime and politics was never going to remain contained within the crumbling walls of one forgotten hostel community.

In many ways, the planned hit on Dorian Paver mirrors the alleged plot to kill Goliath. The prisoners supposedly behind the plot were both cops. They both clearly had easy access to cellphones inside prison, as many inmates do. Complicity with prison officials also seems likely.   

The reason the planned hit on Paver never made national headlines was because he is merely a prosecutor and not a top figure in the judiciary, such as Goliath. Also, most of Mdweshu and his crew’s previous alleged victims were hostel residents whom the ANC had attempted to brand as “criminals” – the subtext being that they were unimportant and therefore expendable.

For communities that do not have the luxury of private security, bodyguards, civil society support and media attention – particularly those who suffered apartheid’s generational trauma and remain neglected, disadvantaged and without agency under the current dispensation – democracy has lost all meaning. 

Instead of offering hope and justice, the state has proved to be yet another malign affliction to be suffered, or somehow avoided, in the daily struggle for survival. The allegations against Hlophe will merely confirm communities’ escalating distrust of the criminal justice system.

It’s all connected

According to media reports, the justice ministry has referred the report on the alleged planned hit on Goliath to the SAPS and the State Security Agency (SSA) “so that it can be processed within the spectrum of law enforcement agencies’ mandates”.

Neither entity fills one with confidence. The SAPS will in effect be investigating itself, while the SSA appears to have spent most of the past decade building “rogue units” to spy on former president Jacob Zuma’s perceived enemies. If either functioned as they should, we would not be faced with the unedifying spectacle of a top judge allegedly ordering a hit on his colleague. As a senior member of the so-called independent judiciary, Hlophe’s alleged support for Zuma should also not be minimised.

It’s important to remember that the SAPS has done almost everything in its power – despite a directive to the contrary from the SSA – to prevent Umzimkhulu whistle-blowers Thabiso Zulu and Les Stuta from receiving vital protection after they exposed the municipal corruption that allegedly led to Magaqa’s death. 

Charges against Umzimkhulu mayor Mluleki Ndobe for Magaqa’s murder were later provisionally withdrawn, and while Myeza remained in prison, Ndobe went on to become convener of the KZN ANC’s regional task team charged with preparing the province for the 2021 local government elections.  

Since then, Thabiso Zulu has survived an assassination attempt and several plots to silence him. More recently, he has been unlawfully arrested and assaulted by police who are suspected of acting on the orders of Msunduzi municipal ward councillor Sphamandla Madlala, who was arrested earlier this year on fraud and corruption charges linked to municipal tenders. 

Shortly thereafter, Phillip Makhanyela, who, together with Zulu, had been instrumental in exposing corruption in Msunduzi, was gunned down near the same spot that the earlier attempt on Zulu’s life took place.

Will the officers who assaulted Zulu and terrorised his neighbours be held accountable?

It seems unlikely, given that the head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) in the province was once stationed at, and was later in charge of the very police station whose officers Zulu has since laid charges against. 

Blue blood runs thick and deep, some say. But conflicts of interest aside, with a less than 2% conviction rate, IPID is less than effective in removing criminal cops from what has become a deeply compromised system.

Will the murderers in any of these cases ever face justice? In light of the recent allegations involving Hlophe, the jury may be out for some time.     

And while the public becomes progressively more cynical and less engaged in democratic processes, systemic corruption, intraparty conflicts over access to power and resources, and the slow collapse of law and order are likely to see an increase in a permanent method of conflict resolution – assassinations. 

KZN ANC leaders’ recent claims to have abandoned the “revenge narrative” are simply not borne out by the evidence as corpses pile up. 

ANC is ‘moving away from political killing and revenge narrative’ in eThekwini

Tough economic times are also likely to drive more young men into the killing economy – into the arms of alleged hit squad handlers like Myeza and Mdweshu, and their paymasters.

Now that this poison has reportedly seeped into the veins of our judiciary, immediate action is needed to arrest the culture of impunity and political patronage. 

Without simultaneous social relief and reconstruction, South Africa’s judiciary, its democracy and ultimately the state itself risk entering a death spiral of illegitimacy that could lead to civil unrest.

We are one step closer to becoming a failed state. DM

 

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  • Vanessa, you are so right about justice system, what is more alarming is that “ordinary” straight forward cases gets postponed, almost indefinitely. We had a case of robbery that took 13 months to conclude. After that we don’t even worry to report anything.

  • A chilling but excellently written article, brave as well considering its content. It leaves me appalled and saddened that the voters of this country are by and large ignorant of or indifferent to this state of affairs. How can we navigate our way out of the current mess if we continue to put hoodlums in positions of authority? I suggest that to qualify to vote in any election in the future one must have read and absorbed this article.

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