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Heated debate over Hawks restructuring

Emsie Ferreira

Parliamentarians have held heated final deliberations on draft legislation to restructure the Hawks in line with a Constitutional Court judgment.

Opposition parties warned the proposals would fail to satisfy the court. MPs were expected to vote on the Bill on Wednesday evening.

The original version has been changed to give members of the elite corruption-fighting unit greater security of tenure and to limit the influence of the national police commissioner over its budget and operations.

In the version set to go before the National Assembly, the head of the Hawks will be appointed for a term of between seven and 10 years.

Although the head of the unit can still be removed from the post by a vote in the National Assembly, Parliament’s portfolio committee on police agreed that this could only be done after an investigation headed by a sitting or retired judge.

These changes came about after experts told the public hearings that the initial draft failed to satisfy the requirements of the Constitutional Court.

Not sufficiently independent
In a landmark ruling last year, the court found that the Hawks, also known as the Directorate Priority Crimes Investigation, was not sufficiently independent and gave Parliament 18 months to rewrite the South African Police Service Act to address this.

In public hearings last month, several submissions questioned how the unit could be regarded as adequately independent if it remained in the police and ultimately under the command of the national commissioner.

The police secretariat ruled out any possibility of relocating the unit, pointing out that this was not a requirement of the court.

On Wednesday, the secretariat told MPs the final version of the Bill successfully ring-fenced the budget of the Hawks and removed the possibility for the commissioner – a political appointee – to influence the investigations of the unit.

This was vehemently disputed by Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard, who asked: “Who prevails if there is a dispute between the national commissioner and the [Hawks] on whether to investigate?”

A crime to refuse
Police secretary Jenny Irish-Qhobosheane replied that the draft Act allowed the head of the Hawks to hand any case referred to the unit back to a provincial police commissioner, who then had to investigate it.

She said it was a crime to refuse to investigate a crime.

“If the provincial commissioner refuses to investigate then that becomes an unlawful act.”

Kohler-Barnard remained unconvinced, adding that ultimately provincial commissioners would do the national commissioner’s bidding, so the Bill failed to remove the spectre of political meddling.

“This is going to go straight back to the Constitutional Court,” she said.

Last minute change
Hawks director Anwa Dramat asked for a last minute change to spell out that any requests to police intelligence for assistance with cases should be treated as a priority.

“We need some form of intelligence on almost all cases we investigate. This is just to make sure that we do not have to stand in line behind a whole lot of other requests when we need help.”

The issue raised considerable debate, with the ANC’s Anneliese van Wyk recalling that one of the reasons for the controversial disbanding of the Hawks’s predecessor, the Scorpions, was that it had illegally established an intelligence capacity.

Any co-operation would therefore have to be of a clearly defined nature and duration, she said.

“So it needs to be clear that it [crime intelligence] would be delegated for a specific period until that case is finished. Otherwise we would be back to the basic problem.” – Sapa

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