/ 27 September 2013

Heists: When cops become the robbers

The airport
The airport, with continuing luggage theft a major problem, is an area that requires vigorous policing. (Gallo)

In 2008, a curious robbery took place at OR Tambo International Airport. The theft of R8-million in local and foreign currency was made even more daring by the fact that a media circus had been orchestrated around the money just hours before.

On the night of July 1 2008, warrant officer Jeffrey Ndou was on his way home when he was allegedly hijacked and robbed of the keys to the SAP 13 storeroom at the airport – where the money, which had been confiscated along with R7-million in drugs and proudly shown to the media, was being kept.

According to his statement to the police, people travelling in four cars hijacked him near his home in the south of Johannesburg – one of the cars was a marked police vehicle. After robbing him of the safe's keys, they dumped him in Glenhove on the West Rand.

Fast forward to December last year, when drugs and cash worth more than R20-million were stolen when a wall at the airport's SAPS administrative block at OR Tambo was broken through so the thieves could gain access to the safe. Again, warrant officer Ndou was in charge of the safe.

According to police officers stationed at the border policing section at OR Tambo, the thefts were widely believed to bear the hallmarks of an inside job.

"Management will tell you that there is an investigation [into police collusion], but we are middle management, we've never been briefed about any investigation," one of the senior officers at the airport told the Mail & Guardian.

The officers say the station commander at the time of the first theft, then Brigadier Mondli Zuma, at the time should have been suspended for the crimes that were happening under his brief.

The lieutenants colonel who were stationed at the airport when the two robberies occurred and who worked throughout Zuma's tenure as station commander, established a forum in 2009 to address what they saw as rampant maladministration, corruption and racism taking place under his watch, and under that of other officers at the airport.

Further grievances that were aired include accusations of fraudulent promotions of officers who did not qualify under affirmative action laws. Other breaches include the misuse of resources.

This is the same Mondli Zuma who had the honour of being the shortest-serving provincial police commissioner when he was appointed by national police commissioner Riah Phiyega on August 31, only for the appointment to be reversed a few hours later after news surfaced of a pending criminal matter dating back to 2008. The charges Zuma faces include failing to stop when ordered, drunk driving, attempting to escape from custody and defeating the ends of justice.

In 2010, the lieutenants colonel wrote a memorandum to the then component head, Major General Elias Mawela, outlining the issues they had with their immediate superiors, Zuma and Brigadier Remy Mogale.

In the memorandum, the officers painted a bleak picture of the operational environment at OR Tambo, and they called for Mogale – who took over as station commander in 2010 – to be removed. They asked then national police commissioner Bheki Cele to intervene.

"Mawela was still the major general [and Zuma's immediate superior] when we sent the memo and he never responded," one officer said.

Though the average citizen can turn to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to investigate the police – a directorate that achieved a less than satisfactory conviction rate of 0.73% in the previous year, as their latest figures will show when they are released next week – what happens when police complain about other police officers?

Police can progressively escalate the matter to the next superior until, as in this case, it reaches the doorstep of the police commissioner.

Earlier this year, Zuma, together with current divisional commissioner Mawela, tried to have 12 officers transferred under the pretext of affording them "an opportunity to accumulate diverse policing experience".  

The 12 were all signatories to the 2010 memorandum that alleged, among other things, the marginalisation of black staff in favour of white people, spying on members and the alleged organised concealment of information relating to the 2008 robbery of SAP 13, which took place while Zuma was station commander.

The memorandum has since formed part of the successful interdict to halt their transfers by Mawela, a matter in which Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and Phiyega were co-respondents.

Mawela, in reference to the theft from the SAP 13 storeroom, said that his officers were also victims of crime because they were also robbed.

"We don't have facts to suggest that they were the perpetrators of that robbery," he said. "That case was investigated by the Gauteng organised crime unit. When it comes to the safety of police forensics, that situation is always reviewed with the Airports Company South Africa and strategic security adjustments are made."  

Those strategic adjustments are not for public consumption, Mawela said. He defended the actions of safe-keeper Ndou, saying that, as far as he knew, there was nothing to prevent Ndou from having keys with him at home, as he did on the day of the 2008 robbery.

Former police officer Johan Burger, now senior researcher for the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said: "When you take responsibility for securing a specific area, you have to do a threat analysis to determine the nature of the threat and how to approach it.

"At the airport, you're still getting theft of items from luggage, though the airport has said it has placed 24-hour cameras in those places – but the theft still continues," he said.

"You still have people moving freely in airport areas identifying those with money and other property that makes them victims of attacks, People are still being followed en route to their destinations and being robbed."

Regarding the SAP 13 storeroom robbery, Burger said collusion with organised syndicates was possible because the police have not been forthcoming about why there were repeat robberies. It seems that, when it comes to policing the police, gaps remain. Gaps big enough to allow for misdemeanours.