A specialised Hawks unit whose primary mandate is to investigate crimes against the state, such as terrorist threats, appears to have been deployed to handle controversial and politically sensitive cases.
The unit, Crimes Against the State (Cats), is investigating alleged “illegal activities” at the South African Revenue Service (Sars), as well as fraud and corruption at the beleaguered national airline, SAA.
Although both the Sars and SAA cases include implausible claims linked to threats against the state, questions about the purpose and credibility of the investigations have been raised.
The presence of Cats members at Parliament in February is also somewhat unusual. They were apparently deployed to help other police units with security during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address.
In the revenue service matter, the Cats commander, Brigadier Nyameka Xaba, is leading an investigation into charges linked to alleged corruption, fraud and contravention of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act in connection with a so-called rogue spy unit.
This is according to a secret memorandum, published in City Press, that Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza sent to State Security Minister David Mahlobo.
In the memo, Ntlemeza says his unit is “pursuing the investigation into unlawful activities allegedly perpetuated by the Sars disbanded rogue unit in 2007”.
Xaba, an experienced detective, was promoted to the rank of brigadier by Ntlemeza, who was controversially appointed to head the Hawks last year.
“I infer that he is being treated as a suspect”
At a recent media briefing, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko failed to provide clarity on the exact nature of the charges or the legal authority on which the Hawks based a set of 27 questions, apparently connected with the investigation, that they sent to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Xaba was reportedly involved in penning the questions sent to Gordhan in February.
In the accompanying letter Ntlemeza instructed Gordhan, a former Sars commissioner, to “hand-deliver” his response to Xaba.
After the letter was leaked to the media, both its tone and the motive for sending the questions have raised their own questions.
Last week a criminal attorney told amaBhungane: “The questions insinuate that [Gordhan] is involved in what they (the Hawks) allege they are investigating. I infer that he is being treated as a suspect.”
The lawyer added that, though there was nothing “unusual in the questions”, the proper channels had not been followed.
“The Sars matter should be dealt with by commercial crimes, not Cats”
A formal investigation of the “rogue unit” started after Sars commissioner and Gordhan enemy Tom Moyane lodged a complaint in May last year.
The Cats investigation follows several inquiries into the unit that failed to pinpoint specific details of unlawful behaviour by Sars officials.
But a well-placed police source questioned the motive for the Cats unit’s involvement, telling amaBhungane: “When a case is assigned to Cats, it is not considered an ordinary case but [is related to] crimes directed specifically against the state.” The source added: “The Sars matter should be dealt with by commercial crimes, not Cats, which is meant to protect the state from a coup, for example.”
Cats is also investigating allegations of criminal conduct at SAA.
In December, Xaba interviewed the head of the SAA Pilots’ Association, Captain John Harty, over allegations linked to aircraft sabotage.
Intelligence allegedly indicated that several white pilots, including Harty, planned to commit sabotage against their black colleagues by trying to bring down an aircraft. The alleged plot, which included plans to tamper with an aircraft’s rudder system, was supposedly meant to undermine black pilots.
This followed growing tensions between the pilots’ association and the SAA board, led by the chair of the Jacob Zuma Foundation, Dudu Myeni. Harty reportedly said he believed the sabotage allegation was an intimidation tactic.
“I don’t understand why you question its validity”
Before the Cats interview, the pilots’ association voted overwhelmingly in favour of a no-confidence vote in Myeni. She made comments to Parliament last year that white pilots were racist and overpaid.
Myeni, who is considered to be close to the president, has faced severe criticism over her interference in strategic decisions of the financially distressed airline.
The small Cats unit, which is based at the Hawks head office in Pretoria, has been involved in several high-profile cases, including the Boeremag investigation in the early 2000s.
It also investigated Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and its alleged activities in South Africa.
Responding to questions about the unit’s mandate, Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said: “The [unit] … is governed by laws of the country as contained in the SAPS Act. I don’t understand why you question its validity and which cases we must investigate.”
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