Will Mthethwa open a can of worms to save his skin?
Nathi Mthethwa can't win: in calling for a probe into claims he dipped into secret police spy funds, he risks ruining sensitive police investigations.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the weekend called on the auditor general to investigate the increasingly controversial secret police fund for intelligence gathering.
In doing so he played a card that has worked for others in similar tight spots, but for him there is no winning hand.
Such an investigation would have to be either suspiciously limited or else a very detailed audit of the police intelligence fund at the centre of allegations that have now come to involve him, President Jacob Zuma, and recently-reinstated crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli, among others.
But as revelations keep coming about what insiders say is widespread and systematic abuse of the slush fund, neither may do him much good, regardless of the outcome.
After the City Press on Sunday published details of a Hawks investigation into benefits Mthethwa reportedly received from the secret fund, Mthethwa issued a statement flatly denying all the allegations, saying he “has now telephonically requested the auditor general to investigate these allegations and will be formally writing to him urgently”.
This is reminiscent of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s swift call, in mid-March, for public protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate claims that his partner, Gugu Mtshali, had solicited a bribe.
That response regained Motlanthe a degree of public sympathy, distancing him from the allegations—at least for the time being. Zuma, likewise, saw a spike in public support when he announced an enquiry into the arms deal last year, while simultaneously warding off a possible judicial review.
But the situation Mthethwa faces is different. The auditor general’s office has already contributed to the slush fund investigation— and its acceptance of explanations on spending apparently played a part in the reinstatement of Mdluli.
However, both the Hawks and the public protector are conducting parallel investigations into different aspects of the police secret fund, suggesting that neither institution has a conflict of interest that would preclude looking into claims against Mthethwa.
Yet he chose neither the unit that falls under his purview, nor what has emerged as the most trusted office in the investigation of malfeasance by public servants, to clear his name.
‘Without fear or favour’
Mthethwa himself has in the past strongly condemned the misuse of public funds, and argued that public perception is an important part in dealing with corruption.
“We need to decisively deal with corruption without fear or favour. Corruption is an ill that has to be removed from our midst as it serves to deny citizens what they rightfully expect from government,” he told a conference in August last year.
In theory the auditor general could conduct a very limited investigation of the new claims involving Mthethwa.
According to City Press, the Hawks uncovered two instances of the misuse of funds for his benefit: R200 000 paid for renovations to his private home and the use of a luxury vehicle over a period of 15 months.
Clearing his name entirely would be a different matter. Besides the hard-to-investigate political element (including allegations that Mthethwa effectively ordered Mdluli’s suspension to be lifted), the very nature of the fund obscures the transparency of transactions: paper trails are not encouraged. Nothing short of a painstakingly detailed investigation could exonerate any of the parties now linked to raiding it—and such an investigation could jeopardise its functioning, which in itself would be an embarrassment for Mthethwa.
The police’s share of the secret services account is estimated to be R200-million or more per year.
“About 80% of the secret services account is siphoned off illegally and only about 20% is used for legitimate operations,” a source familiar with its operation said in December. Nearly all payments made from it, even running into hundreds of thousands of rands, are in cash.
Legitimate payments to police informants, some of them sensitively placed, are deliberately obscured to protect their identities.
Presented with such a system—with no direct link between payment for information and outcomes such as prosecutions, and allegations that there had been no benefit derived for some payments—auditors in private practice say piecemeal investigation would be virtually worthless.
Only by tracking all large payments to their ultimate recipients, and validating those payments individually, could the integrity of the fund be determined. It is safe to assume that some recipients, especially those involved in active investigations, would be less than impressed to learn how many people would have to be privy to their information to make such an audit viable.
Rock, hard place
Which leaves Mthethwa wedged between a rock and a hard place: A limited investigation by the auditor general would most likely be regarded as a whitewash. But a full investigation could do lasting damage to the police’s ability to gather intelligence.
Throwing his weight behind the investigations of either the Hawks or the protector, meanwhile, would be politically fraught, and based on available information would still require a detailed audit and a restructuring of the way the fund operates.