There is something terribly surreal about the unfolding story of Richard Mdluli and the battle for the commanding heights of the security establishment.
The headlines grow bolder each week, tracking the mounting evidence of serious wrongdoing against the crime intelligence boss on the one hand and the open warfare within the police and the secret state on the other.
And yet the press coverage and the growing public concern seem to have all the effect of howling in the wilderness, or worse, a padded cell.
At the heart of the madness is the clear impression that President Jacob Zuma trusts Mdluli to support him politically and to lend the immense resources at his command — particularly the control of surveillance capacity — to the cause of a second term.
We know that Mdluli has written to Zuma declaring his loyalty and complaining of plots against him by other senior police officials. We know that Mdluli attended what amounted to a campaign rally with Zuma in the Free State on Workers’ Day, where prominent backers of the Zuma cause such as Ace Magashule and Sdumo Dlamini made their preferences for Mangaung clear. And most of all, we know that Zuma has remained silent in the face of mounting evidence that Mdluli is unsuited to high office and of a police leadership that is spending more time dealing with factional strife than it is on combatting crime. The situation we now find ourselves in truly beggars belief.
The head of crime intelligence is accused of involvement in the killing of a rival for the affections of his girlfriend and the cover-up that followed; of defrauding the police; of setting up his own relatives in covert jobs and safe houses; and of ensuring the public release of a dubious political intelligence document that targets his enemies and those of Zuma.
As we report this week, a fresh investigation into a secret bank account which Hawks investigators believe may have been used to hide millions in illicit cash transfers also focuses on Mdluli.
Meanwhile, Glynnis Breytenbach, the prosecutor who insisted on pursuing some of the allegations against him, has been suspended, officially in relation to another politically sensitive case — Kumba’s allegations that the well-connected Imperial Crown Trading committed fraud in its bid for a prospecting license at the Sishen South mine.
Others seen as enemies by Mdluli, including Hawks boss Anwa Dramat and Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros, are under pressure too.
The threat all of this poses to democracy and national security is obvious. The damage it is doing daily to the president’s reputation is incalculable.
In the face of all this, Zuma remains silent, deferring to his loyal police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, who in turn repeats the absurd refrain that these are “operational” issues quite beyond his remit.
The paranoid, it seems, have taken control of the asylum, imposing on the entire country a regime of insane inverted rules. The message of their serene silence is that it is we, the outraged, who are mad. If we just took our pills, the lunatic doctors soothe, our anxiety would melt away.
The medicine that is really needed is the removal of Mdluli from his post and credible efforts to insulate the investigation into him — and indeed the operations of the police and National Prosecuting Authority more broadly — from political interference.
If that does not happen, the anger within the security services, the prosecuting authority, the ANC and civil society may engulf President Zuma in a way that a few bent cops simply cannot control.