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Untangling the toxic web of factionalism, political interference and unanswered questions in the wake of SA’s July mayhem

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Mary de Haas is a violence monitor and analyst.

The inherited problems of nepotism, incompetence and corruption post ’94 paled into insignificance after Jacob Zuma became president and came to a criminal head in July when his supporters showed the world the depth of their disregard for the law. The questions of who was to blame — and who will be held accountable — are yet to be answered, but the police and intelligence sectors have significant egg on their faces.

In the wake of the diabolical destruction following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma on 7 July, the air was thick with allegations and denials about who was to blame for the lack of intelligence warning about the impending mayhem. Minister of Police Bheki Cele blamed then Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo, who was adamant that NatJoints (the intelligence coordinating committee) had received her departmental report, and that the Police Minister would have known about it. 

The only consensus among those trying to unravel the truth behind this web of denial, based on a report by an expert panel on intelligence problems chaired by former minister Sydney Mufamadi, and evidence to the Zondo Commission, is that intelligence services are a long way from recovering from the serious damage they suffered when captured by the Zuma regime to serve party interests.

Given the threats and actions immediately after Jacob Zuma’s arrest, far more could have been done to prevent some of the serious economic damage which ensued. (Photo: Sandile Ndlovu)

As a consequence, the type of planning needed to deal timeously and effectively with the events of 8-13 July did not happen. However, even without adequate intelligence, and given the threats and actions immediately after Zuma’s arrest, far more could have been done to prevent some of the serious economic damage which ensued.

The real reasons for the failure to act cannot be divorced from the continuing factionalism and political interference in operational policing issues by the Minister of Police, and the lack of political will within the governing party itself to deal decisively with the problems arising from a predominantly Zuma-supporting province.

The politicisation of intelligence, including in police Crime Intelligence Services (CIS), is part of the broader, insidious politicisation of the police to serve the interests of factions of a party, and the continuing efforts being made to block attempts to build a professional service — especially in KZN.  Even claims that information was given to the SAPS cannot be evaluated unless it is known which faction (Zuma/Cele) or the national and/or provincial commissioners it was given to.

Political capture of the SAPS

It was never going to be easy to build a professional, non-partisan police service from the old apartheid and homelands forces, into which a sprinkling of liberation fighters had been, generally unsuccessfully, integrated. However, the inherited problems of nepotism, incompetence and corruption post ’94 paled into insignificance after Zuma became president and, following on from Jackie Selebi, two other non-police members — Riah Phiyega and Bheki Cele — were appointed national commissioners. 

The nine years following 2009, which included the appointment of acting commissioner Khomotso Phahlane (now facing criminal charges), were marked with seriously irregular appointments of political cronies, friends and members of Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKVA) — including criminals — often into senior positions. 

Gross procurement irregularities escalated. Nowhere was this more obvious than in CIS, headed by the Zuma-appointed, apartheid-era security policeman Richard Mdluli. As with the State Security Service (a new structure), police crime intelligence became a tool to be used against political enemies and included recruits sent for specialist training in BRICS partner countries to support Zuma. 

The remilitarisation of the police initiated during the Cele tenure — which had been deliberately done away with in 1994 — was to lead to increased brutality, including the massacre at Marikana in 2012. The rapid promotion of selected cadres resulted in a grossly inflated, top-heavy service with a proliferation of completely unnecessary (and often incompetent) generals and brigadiers, at the expense of well trained “bobbies on the beat”. 

By 2017, investigations by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) into gross procurement irregularities which had been happening since 2009, were well under way. Among those implicated were senior officers including then acting national commissioner Phahlane, who was already under suspension for other financial crimes. 

There was also a focus on irregular procurements by CIS, where the influence of suspended Mdluli (then finally on trial for serious charges for which he was subsequently convicted and imprisoned), was still in evidence. 

Two matters in which millions had been spent irregularly involved the procurement between December 2016 and March 2017 of software to supposedly monitor the #FeesMustFall protests, linked to then minister of police Fikile Mbalula, and a December 2017 attempt by then CIS acting head Chris Ngcobo to procure, on the basis of some supposed “national security threat” a cellphone jamming “grabber”.  

In November 2017, and for the first time in 18 years, a well-trained professional police member, General Khehla Sitole, was handed the poisoned chalice of permanent appointment to the post of National Commissioner SAPS and stepped straight into the hornets’ nest of investigations into the corrupt procurement of equipment for CIS, which had nothing to do with national security and everything to do with ANC factions.

After a tip-off about the illegality of the “grabber” acquisition, the newly appointed commissioner immediately stopped the payment. However, he found himself, with two other senior SAPS members — and (tellingly) Bongani Mbindwane, an adviser to former minister Mbablula —  embroiled in drawn-out court proceedings about a criminal case opened in November 2017.

The main focus of the court application was the failure of SAPS management to hand over to Ipid apparently classified procurement documentation relating to the 2016/early 2017 acquisition, with Judge Davies in his 2021 judgment noting that Sitole’s involvement might be limited to classifying the documents. 

The question of why a commissioner appointed a year after the acquisition would want to classify such documents is not answered. According to a parliamentarian closely monitoring policing in 2016/2017, NatJoints appeared then to be classifying documents for its own reasons without proper protocols being followed. 

It emerged that only Intelligence Inspector-General Setlhomamaru Dintwe had the power to declassify documents; that duly happened, and they were handed to Ipid. In his evidence to the Zondo Commission in May 2021, Dintwe specifically implicated Mbindwane in the irregular procurement of “signal grabbers” ahead of the ANC’s Nasrec conference (at grossly irregular prices) and said that the procurement had been halted by Ipid.  

cele
Particularly serious problems, and a major impediment to cleaning up the police, arise from Police Minister, Bheki Cele’s constant and untoward interference in operational matters, with potentially very serious consequences for justice. (Photo: Kopano Tlape / GCIS)

In 2019 Minister Cele, appointed in 2018, refused to renew the contract of Ipid head Robert McBride, who had driven the investigations, creating the perception that since they went back to 2009, they might be getting “too close for comfort” for the minister.

Cleaning out the Augean stables

General Sitole inherited a police service riven with factions and infiltrated by criminal networks. It was staffed by too many senior and incompetent members, but his attempts to “demote” the over-supplied generals were found to constitute unfair labour practice.

He also set to work trying to curtail irregular expenditure (R968-million in the 2017/18 financial year) and, by October 2020, 42 people — including police members — were facing corruption-related criminal charges, and internal investigations into 564 officers, including generals and brigadiers, were under way. 

One would have expected that a Minister of Police would have welcomed attempts to clean up his portfolio, but by April 2019 a weekend newspaper reported that Cele was looking for any excuse to get rid of Sitole and motivate for his own person to replace him. These allegations were made when Cele apparently took exception to the suspension of Sitole’s deputy, Lieutenant-General Bonang Mgwenya, who had been fast-tracked to be Cele’s chief of staff between 2009 and 2011.

She has since been criminally charged, with other senior officers, for a R191-million SAPS tender fraud, including corrupt procurement and money laundering.

Particularly serious problems, and a major impediment to cleaning up the police, arise from Cele’s constant and untoward interference in operational matters, with potentially very serious consequences for justice. As minister, he had no right to appoint his own team to investigate the murder of soccer star Senzo Meyiwa, or to personally meet Cape Town policeman Charl Kinnear shortly before his 2020 assassination.

Most outrageous of all — and completely unacceptable — is his “hands-on” involvement in investigations into political killings in KZN — killings in which his own comrades may be implicated. Why is this being permitted by the president and Parliament?

Cele has many allies in the police service (as does Zuma), almost certainly including political deployees during the Zuma regime, and members of the ANC-aligned Police and Civil Rights Union (Popcru) which played a valuable role in policing post 1994 but, more recently, has become embroiled in its own corruption scandals. Similarly, his long-standing closeness to MK members such as Peter Jacobs mitigates against loyalty to a commissioner Cele wants to get rid of.

In 2018, Sitole appointed Jacobs to head CIS, while warning that the appointment would be a case of “shape up or ship out”. He presumably did not perform as he has been “shipped out” to another position in the SAPS, amid a great deal of public acrimony.

Jacobs certainly did nothing to heal the factional divides and promote professionalism in CIS in KZN, nor to deal with its criminal activities. An intelligence report recently leaked to the media states, among other things, that KZN CIS officers were involved in the 2017 murder of corruption whistle-blower Sindiso Magaqa, and that a minister was implicated. 

The killing was said to be part of a project authorised to assassinate politicians in KZN financed by CIS, and the hitman was a registered informer.   

It is alleged this report was handed to both Jacobs and Cele, but Cele has denied receiving it. It is well known that Thabiso Zulu, who has pursued justice for Magaqa, has narrowly missed assassination and remains under threat of death, and that the man whose job it is to prevent crime refuses to provide him with the protection recommended by state security agencies — and the very same man tasked with having oversight into political killings.

Spies, lies and audiotape

Around three weeks before security cluster ministers accused each other of lying about the availability of intelligence, press reports in a KZN newspaper referred to the inappropriate friendship between Cele and a convicted drug dealer, and fraud charges having been opened against Cele.   

When convicted of dealing in drugs in 1992, Panganathan “Timmy” Marimuthu would have been among the apartheid police (including security and narcotics) responsible for disseminating drugs, including mandrax, especially to “Indian” and “coloured” communities, as part of the apartheid state chemical warfare programme. In 2002, the Jali Commission established to expose the rot in SA’s prisons, heard claims that top prison officials and politicians had been implicated in the irregular release of Marimuthu, described as a millionaire trucking businessman. 

The commission’s investigators described a climate of fear in which they risked their lives. Cele’s friendship with Marimuthu has been known for years, and by early 2012 media reports accused him, family members and associates of “looting” the secret service fund while providing “consultancy” services for Cele while he was commissioner.

The print media articles were accompanied by the posting of a YouTube recording of a conversation in 2019 between Cele and, presumably, Marimuthu. This recording (probably doctored) could have been about personal/business matters, but reference to known CIS operatives, and to Sitole wanting to give some documentation to Ipid, suggests that Marimuthu, apparently still employed by CIS, was bypassing line management and reporting directly to the minister. Parliamentary committees have been requested to investigate.

The arrest of Zuma and its aftermath

Ayanda Dlodlo
Minister of Police Cele blamed then Minister of State Security Ayanda Dlodlo, who was adamant that NATJoints had received her departmental report, and that the police minister would have known about it. (Photo: GCIS / Flickr)

Claims by then minister Dlodlo that information about threats had been given to the police appear verified by the good organisation, directed by the national office of the SAPS, which ensured that well-trained police members from around the country were assembled at the Nkandla homestead to deal with any eventuality.

Fortunately, as the midnight Constitutional Court deadline approached, Zuma and his entourage left the homestead, for had that not happened there could have been a bloodbath since threats had been made by members of the Zuma family that police arresting him would be killed. Along with other questions, just why members of the Zuma family have not been arrested for sedition has not been answered.

Other unanswered questions include why no action was taken after the arrest, and why no roadblocks were set up, when — even without further intelligence — it was abundantly clear, from posts on social media and the burning trucks and blockages on national freeways, that the threats were not idle.  

Why were soldiers, who had been deployed near Nkandla for Zuma’s arrest, not immediately sent to unblock the roads and guard infrastructure? It was the Minister of Police, with his experience of violence in the province, who should have immediately sought presidential authorisation. He is, of course, also deeply embedded in the politics of the province himself, posing a serious conflict of interest with his duties as a minister.

There are also questions about whether provincially generated crime intelligence was utilised by the KZN executive and police management, since the historical close involvement of MECs in policing issues is well known. General Sitole is on record as telling Parliament in August 2018 that directives had been issued that all provincial premiers should be given briefings by SAPS Crime Intelligence about the state of their provinces, especially if there were any threat to the stability of the country.

Apparently, the provincial commissioner, a well-trained, experienced operational member, was away on paternity leave during the worst of the violence. The deputy commissioner, who was acting, having been promoted to that position despite a dismal record as a district commissioner, was obviously not up to dealing with such a crisis. Why was Public Order Policing not immediately deployed to areas such as Phoenix, with water cannon and back-up by Metro Police?

It seems that the water cannon and three of the four Casspirs controversially acquired by eThekwini Metro Police — supposedly to back up the SAPS in restoring public order — are not even operational. Surely some heads must roll for such serious negligence and for the violence such elementary precautionary procedures could have prevented?  

Apparently well-founded reports over the weekend of 10/11 July suggested that, nationally, the ANC had resolved to implement stringent sanctions against Zuma and supporters. It would seem that any such decisions, if indeed taken, had been set aside after all hell broke loose immediately afterwards.

While the provincial SAPS management and the executive must be interrogated about their lack of preparedness and action following the arrest of Zuma, as must the minister of police, the real imponderables lie within the belly of the ANC beast. Does it really have the will to deal with the criminal enemy within? If it doesn’t, it will have to shoulder the blame if similar episodes of wanton, violent destruction and looting happen again. It cannot claim that it does not know, and that it was not warned. 

Notes about Marimuthu, apartheid police, and the Biochemical Warfare Programme

Media articles cited regarding the Jali Commission and the alleged Marimuthu/CIS/Cele links include The Mercury (which named former deputy Durban mayor the late Sipho Ngwenya as implicated in keeping Marimuthu out of prison, Sunday Times and City Press (2012) and Daily News (2021).

A detective giving evidence in court about Marimuthu in 1992 perjured himself so badly the judge ordered he be removed from investigative work, which he was, temporarily. After 1994, he resurfaced in a fairly senior position in detective services and received further promotion. A complaint to the then SAPS provincial commissioner revealed that his file had been wiped clean of the information about his perjury (which was widely known among detectives at the time).

After 1990, drugs, especially mandrax, spread rapidly to black African townships and rural areas. In 1994, shortly before the elections, a Mercedes stuffed full of mandrax destined for a local shebeen was stopped at a roadblock at Ulundi.

The driver was Siphiwe Mvuyane, a former security policeman turned KwaZulu policeman, a notorious killer and serial rapist who was shot dead before he was finally to go on trial for a litany of crimes. However, because the matter was reported to Judge Goldstone, there was an investigation and a KwaMashu woman and her son were found guilty and paid a very large fine in cash.

The Biochemical Warfare hearings of the TRC were embargoed and, following briefly being declassified in the early 2000s, they — and other related material — were immediately reclassified, seemingly at the insistence of “the generals”. DM

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    • Yes agreed, this does not untangle the web of factionalism at all but merely makes an attempt to explain a very small part of why police management is so dysfunctional.

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