Editorial: Stop Berning the Hawks' bridges

Berning Ntlemeza is “biased and dishonest”, said the judge; he “lacks integrity and honour”, and “made false statements under oath”.  (Lucky Nxumalo)

Berning Ntlemeza is “biased and dishonest”, said the judge; he “lacks integrity and honour”, and “made false statements under oath”. (Lucky Nxumalo)

He is “biased and dishonest”, said the judge; he “lacks integrity and honour”, and “made false statements under oath”. So said Judge Elias Matojane about a year ago in the Pretoria high court, describing the performance of one Berning Ntlemeza, then acting head of the Hawks. Ntlemeza had submitted an affidavit full of “fabrications”, said the judge, and he was guilty of “vindictive and injudicious conduct”.

“Just the man we need to run the Hawks,” someone at the presidency seems to have thought. It’s tempting to think the judge’s comments were read as a job reference, for Ntlemeza is now the permanent head of the Hawks. But no: apparently the presidency and the Cabinet were not apprised of this judicial view of the man they would make one of South Africa’s top cops. Nor, for that matter, do they seem to have been aware of an internal police probe into bias on his part. (Presumably they knew about his closeness to former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, presently earning more than a million a year while on suspension as a murder trial proceeds.)

Ntlemeza’s appointment can thus be challenged, as it has been by the Helen Suzman Foundation, on the grounds of irrationality. It brings to mind the appointment of Menzi Simelane as national director of public prosecutions after his integrity had been questioned by the Ginwala inquiry; his appointment was successfully challenged. You’d have thought the presidency wouldn’t want to repeat such an embarrassment, but it seems not.

Now Ntlemeza is playing a dangerous game of chicken with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, dragging him into the South African Revenue Service’s “rogue unit” controversy and then demanding answers to questions by a particular deadline, and generally acting in a threatening manner. Then there was the recent robbery at the Helen Suzman Foundation, a military-style operation that removed only computers. The theft may have zero to do with Ntlemeza, but his background and recent behaviour don’t inspire confidence, nor does his apparent drive to turn the Hawks from a crime-fighting unit into a president-protecting Tonton Macoutes, taking their cue from the notorious Haitian paramilitary force.

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