/ 6 April 2009

The master of compromise

Two leading members of the NPA were pitted against each other recently. We profile both men. Willie Hofmeyr may not be someone to compromise his principles, but compromise is one of his principles. Also read The Man Who Won’t Go Down

It would be hard to imagine a match less equal than that between the two burly cops and the slight Mass Democratic Movement activist they flung into the back of their van in front of the National Party offices. Like a pocket of potatoes, I thought.

It was early September 1989, days before the last apartheid elections. Thousands of citizens were marching on Parliament. Willie Hofmeyr, as so often since, was in the thick of things, until his unceremonious arrest.

The apartheid regime’s victory was pyrrhic. The demo had been broken up and hundreds arrested, but the authorities were the laughing stock of the world. The riot squad’s novel use of a water cannon spraying purple dye backfired instantaneously when an activist redirected the nozzle to stain the Nat party offices, and permanently when it spawned one of the catchiest slogans to highlight the absurdity of race classification: ”The purple shall govern.”

I saw Hofmeyr again in 2006, when he and then Scorpions head Leonard McCarthy marched into the Mail & Guardian offices as we were about to publish our first exposé of police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi’s relationship with mafioso Glenn Agliotti.

Hofmeyr, by then deputy national prosecutions director, and McCarthy wanted our article pulled, or at least redacted in so far as it revealed that the Scorpions were investigating Selebi.

Please understand that, in the prevailing anti-Scorpions climate, news of such an investigation could kill the unit, they said. When we played tough, they threatened to interdict.

Hofmeyr was wearing the other shoe, even if his tactics were less jackboot than those of his captors 17 years before. The purple activist was ”governing” indeed, if ambiguously. He occupied a senior position in the apparatus of state, yet in a component that was mortally threatened.

Were I to guess, Hofmeyr’s advocacy within the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to have the charges against Jacob Zuma dropped can be traced to his uneasy transition from activist to apparatchik. Seemingly not one to have fallen for the outward trappings of power, he has nevertheless made it his business to be close to its fount.

Fawning Independent group articles have quoted sources saying Hofmeyr is ”a fair and honest negotiator who does not pursue any agendas” and ”not a person to compromise his principles at all”.

Three years ago a newspaper in the same group conveyed a different message when Hofmeyr and his Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU), one of two units he heads at the NPA, went after Schabir Shaik’s assets. ”Spite, sheer spite and malice,” is how Moe Shaik — now presumably the source of some of the fawn — described Hofmeyr’s motive.

The truth is more complex. Hofmeyr may not be someone to compromise his principles, but compromise is one of his principles.

We saw it when minor changes to our Selebi article neutralised his interdict threat. Schabir Shaik saw it when Hofmeyr and the AFU agreed to split R10-million interest on his seized estate with him ”to avert a costly court battle”. Scorpions aficionados saw it when Hofmeyr emerged as a key negotiator to facilitate the transition to the new police-controlled Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI) while arguing for the retention of the Scorpions’ investigative model.

Hofmeyr was once Thabo Mbeki’s man. He had been an ANC MP since 1994 when the then deputy president made him his parliamentary adviser in 1998. The following year Hofmeyr was redeployed to head the newly created AFU and, in 2001, after Mbeki had unceremoniously dumped Willem Heath as head of the Special Investigating Unit, Hofmeyr got this portfolio too.

Purists might have found Hofmeyr’s sidling up to power distasteful; might have blamed him for taking Heath’s job under those circumstances; and might blame him now for his role in overseeing the Scorpions’ demise.

Secretly the same purists might be relieved that it was Hofmeyr who was doing it and Hofmeyr, much more the utilitarian than the purist himself, might share their view.

But utilitarianism has its ­pit-falls. Hofmeyr may think that by brokering a compromise that will let Zuma off the hook while saving the NPA from further bashing and embarrassment he is saving the institution so it can live to fight future, equally important battles.

Tipped to be appointed the DPCI’s first head, he would also know that his own ambition would not be realised were he not to play ball with Zuma. In his utilitarian universe the inherent conflict of interest might not bother him: he too needs to live another day, ultimately to serve the interests of justice.

But in the confusion between the ambitions of a man for himself and for his country, Hofmeyr the activist may die. If so, the victory of his jackbooted captors in 1989 would be more than pyrrhic.