Safeguards against the abuse of state power face one of their stiffest tests in the series of intertwined cases involving former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, suspended prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach, former police commissioner Bheki Cele and the 20 policemen arrested this week as part of a crackdown on the so-called Cato Manor police death squad. Every government tries to use the coercive weight of state authority to remove problems it would rather not deal with through open and drawn-out legal processes. But the shortcuts taken by the Zuma administration have been piling up in an unsustainable way that threatens the prolonged destabilisation of both the police and the prosecution service. The attempts at political manipulation also have implications for the media because various sides in the conflict have used leaks and spin to smear their opponents. Complicating the process — perhaps even driving it — is that in each case personal interests are involved for the most senior political figures, including Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and President Jacob Zuma. Moreover, those shortcuts are now facing unprecedented scrutiny in a blizzard of cases. In terms of Mdluli, they include:
- His challenge to his suspension in the Johannesburg Labour Court;
- The new disciplinary charges filed against him by outgoing acting police commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi;
- The inquest into the 1999 murder of Oupa Ramogibe, the husband of Mdluli’s former lover;
- The Freedom Under Law challenge to the withdrawal of charges against Mdluli and his short-lived reinstatement as divisional commissioner for crime intelligence following the intervention of Mthethwa;
- The Hawks investigation into abuses of the secret services account, which implicated Mdluli and other senior crime intelligence officers;
- Breytenbach’s challenge to being suspended by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), which she alleges had the ulterior motive of preventing her from prosecuting Mdluli for allegedly defrauding the secret services account;
- The preliminary investigation by the public protector into Mdluli’s possible role in the surveillance or targeting of Zuma’s political rivals, following a complaint laid by Tokyo Sexwale;
- The involvement of the inspector general of intelligence and the auditor general in some aspects of these investigations; and
- The ministerial task team appointed by Mthethwa to look into Mdluli’s allegations of a conspiracy against him by other senior police officers.
In terms of Cele, they include:
- His high court challenge to the findings of the Moloi inquiry into his fitness to hold office;
- Judge Jake Moloi’s recommendation to investigate further Cele’s involvement in the Roux Shabangu police headquarters leasing scandal, as well as question marks over several senior police appointments;
- The ongoing litigation over the cancelled leases between the department of public works, Shabangu and his banker, Nedbank;
- The suggestion that, because of his closeness to some of those involved, Cele may be drawn into the Cato Manor “hit squad” case and the prosecution of nouveau millionairess Shauwn Mpisane for allegedly defrauding the South African Revenue Service. Cele was conspicuously present in court to support both sets of accused; and
- The investigation into how crime intelligence came to intercept Cele’s telephone calls — as well as those of two Sunday Times journalists.
- The NPA denies that her involvement in pressing for Mdluli’s prosecution played any role in disciplinary action taken against her, instead citing allegations of improper conduct in another politically charged case — the Kumba Iron Ore criminal case against politically connected company Imperial Crown Trading.
The interwoven strands of these cases can perhaps best be understood by traversing the history of one of the key players. Cele, contrary to some views, has not been a steady backer of Zuma. During his time in KwaZulu-Natal, he was for a long time associated with the S’bu Ndebele faction of the provincial ANC, which supported former president Thabo Mbeki until the reality of the Zuma tsunami forced most to switch sides. Historically, Cele was seen as the power broker for the eThekwini region that controlled access to the significant resources of the Durban metro council. Allies of Cele, such as the Mpisanes and the Gcaba taxi family, benefited from Durban contracts in housing and transport. To complicate matters, the Gcabas are said to have been important contributors to the funds raised for Zuma while he was fighting the corruption charges being pursued by the Scorpions. In 1998 Sbu Mpisane (Shauwn’s husband), a metro police constable, was due to be a state witness in the trial of long-distance taxi boss Mandla Gcaba, accused of arranging the revenge killing of a rival taxi owner. But Mpisane, whose car was identified as the getaway vehicle, disappeared and his failure to testify may have played a role in Gcaba’s acquittal. Mpisane later reappeared and rose to fame as Durban’s richest metro policeman, courtesy of his wife’s company. Conflict between rival taxi associations also looms large in the history of the Cato Manor unit, which fell under provincial Hawks boss Major General Johan Booysen. During Cele’s tenure as KwaZulu-Natal safety and security MEC, he and Booysen were both cited in an interdict obtained in October 2008 by the chairperson of the kwaMaphumulo Taxi Association, Bongani Mkhize, preventing the police from killing him. Mkhize, who was embroiled in a long turf war with another taxi association, was being sought in connection with the murder of Kranskop police commander Zethembe Chonco in August that year. At the time of the interdict, the police, including members of the Cato Manor organised crime unit, had killed seven suspects linked to the Chonco murder in alleged shoot-outs. Despite the interdict, Mkhize was shot dead in February 2009 by a police task team that included members of the Cato Manor unit. Police claimed he fired on them, but a ballistics expert brought in by the family raised serious doubts about their version. This killing also featured in the secret intelligence report leaked by the Mdluli camp in March 2011, just ahead of Mdluli’s arrest for the 1999 love triangle murder. The report — without advancing evidence — accused Cele of orchestrating the killing of Chonco to cover up his own supposed involvement in taxi violence, which Chonco had “stumbled on”, and then arranging for all those involved in the Chonco murder to meet a similar grisly end. Cele, in turn, is understood to have supported the murder investigation into Mdluli, which was reopened shortly before Cele assumed office in 2009. Both Zuma and Mthethwa have also been drawn into the drama around Booysen and members of the Cato Manor unit. Police claimed to have evidence that taxi boss Mkhize was involved in planning the murder of chief Mbongeleni Zondi, a relative and ally of Zuma. According to a police intelligence source, Zondi, a former policeman, was targeted by Mkhize because he was suspected of providing the information that led to the killing of Maphumulo taxi association boss Magojela Ndimande and his bodyguard in December 2008. They, too, were gunned down by members of the Cato Manor unit, purportedly while on the trail of Chonco’s killers — and all but one of the four suspects accused of involvement in the Zondi killing are now dead at the hands of the police. In all cases, the Cato Manor unit is claiming the justifiable use of deadly force, but the high-visibility arrests of its members this week suggest an attempt to break the bonds of solidarity that traditionally exist in such a unit. Even sympathetic sources concede that the unit may have become trigger-happy, particularly in relation to suspects allegedly involved in the killing of policemen. But the high-profile involvement of opposing political figures — notably Mthethwa’s earlier vocal demand for the disbanding of the unit and Cele’s public show of support this week — suggests there is more at stake. Booysen, although not charged, is clearly a target. He was initially threatened with suspension for failing to act on the Cato Manor unit’s alleged abuses, but rebuffed the attempt in court. But Booysen is also key to an investigation that has exposed the involvement of the president’s relatives, notably Zuma’s son Edward and Zuma’s friend Deebo Mzobe. Both men have been accused of attempting to intercede in the investigation of Durban multimillionaire Thoshan Panday, accused of fraud in police accommodation contracts. Both have denied their involvement, but not their links to Panday. Citizen reporter Paul Kirk, who is known to have good contacts in the Cato Manor unit, reported this week that some of the arrested policemen had been involved in investigations into Edward Zuma and his business partners — and that others had been used in probes targeting Mdluli. Mthethwa has, in particular, been embarrassed by leaks about the use of secret services account money to upgrade security at his KwaZulu-Natal home. On the other hand, the Hawks component of the investigation into the Cato Manor unit was led by Major General Ntebo Mabula, a policeman known to be a trusted associate of Mdluli. The investigation into the unit was prompted by a front-page story in the Sunday Times — complete with some shocking crime-scene pictures of Cato Manor members and their victims. Both the tip-off for the story and the supply of the pictures appear to have come from senior unnamed crime intelligence officers, although the Sunday Times has denied being manipulated by its sources. The web of cases linking Cele, Mdluli and Breytenbach appears to have many strands that might pose a risk to Zuma and his allies, should they be fully teased out. That may explain the heavy-handed tactics on display in Durban, where the Cato Manor cops offered to hand themselves over but were arrested and handcuffed in front of their families. This approach is also evident in the Breytenbach case, in which the prosecutor has even been charged with performing work outside of the NPA by renting out a flat and running a horse-stabling business. It may also explain the apparently endless blocking manoeuvres available to Mdluli to challenge his suspension. Whether the strong-arm tactics succeed may depend on how vulnerable those in the firing line perceive themselves to be — and how vulnerable they think the president is. * Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]
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