​Phiyega’s war on Booysen led to an unlikely – and surprising – alliance with McBride

In 2012, the head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal, Major General Johan Booysen, was charged with racketeering, a crime that carries a life sentence. In 2014, the charges were withdrawn because, said a judge, there was no evidence linking him to the alleged offences. He remained on suspension until his South African Police Service disciplinary hearing, which ruled that he should return to work.
National police commissioner Riah Phiyega challenged the decision. She did not want him back in his job, saying there would be “chaos” if he and provincial police commissioner Mmamonnye Ngobeni (now suspended) had to work together. There was no legal reason to keep Booysen from work so, after consulting then Hawks head Anwa Dramat, Booysen ignored her and returned to his job.

In this extract from Jessica Pitchford’s book about Booysen, Booysen’s own words are given in italics. The rest is Pitchford’s narrative.

My office chair was hardly warm when Anwa Dramat phoned and said Riah Phiyega wanted to see me. I should go to Pretoria at my earliest convenience.

Johan Booysen and Dramat waited outside her office for five hours before she pitched.

When she arrived, dressed in police uniform, she said trust had broken down between me and Ngobeni and gave me three options: I could apply for a transfer to another province, take early retirement and get paid out for the remainder of my contract or go on “special leave” while I contemplated my future. She gave me a month to decide. I didn’t like any of her options and I certainly wasn’t going to take early retirement, even though it would have meant getting paid out R2.5-million over and above my pension. To me it would be like taking a pay-off.

A month later, Johan went back to Pretoria to give her his answer. This time she was only two hours late, dressed in civilian clothes and looking pleased with herself.

“So … what have you decided?” She beamed at him and rubbed her hands together.

Johan told her he had made up his mind and that he wasn’t going anywhere.

I didn’t see why I should go and work somewhere else because PC Ngobeni felt uncomfortable in my presence. I told her I wasn’t going to stay on leave either — it was against regulations.

Her smile vanished in an instant. “So if I give you an instruction to be relocated you will defy it?”

“I will challenge it.”

“On what basis?”

“In terms of the amendment to the Police Act, which says that you cannot transfer me.”

The Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation is known as the Hawks. It was Dramat’s job to take action against him, not Phiyega’s.

She looked down at Dramat, over whom she towered.

“What do you say?”

“I agree with the general.”

She asked Johan to leave and told Dramat she needed to talk to him.

As he got up and left, Johan told her he would be back in his office on duty the following day.

After an hour, Dramat joined me and we went for coffee. He said Phiyega had asked him what made me tick. He told her that I wanted to get on with my job and that there was nothing to stop me.

Over coffee, he and Dramat decided that, in the interests of good working relationships, he would, despite the fact that he had already been on suspension for close on two years, take vacational leave and then meet Ngobeni and Phiyega to clear the air. They had two weeks to reconsider their position.

The meeting, a fortnight later, didn’t serve to do that at all. Johan says Phiyega launched into him.

She said I had humiliated and undermined her and leaked negative stories about her to newspapers. She accused me of plotting against her with [former national police commissioner] Bheki Cele and of being involved with drug lords.

Then she started crying. Loudly. Johan was unimpressed.

Deputy national police commissioner [Nobubele] Mbekela went to fetch tissues and started rubbing her back as if to soothe her. I felt nothing — she had made my life very difficult. I told her she couldn’t deny that she had stopped the [businessperson Thoshan] Panday investigation.

That made her sob even louder, saying Johan was against her: “I don’t know if it’s because I am a woman or because I don’t have straight hair!”

Johan rolled his eyes and glanced at Dramat, normally a placid person. He looked completely fed up.

Johan addressed Phiyega.

I told her it was my constitutional obligation to investigate corruption and, if Ngobeni didn’t trust me, perhaps it had something to do with her own conduct. Then I left.

Johan was in his office on December 11 2014 when he received a call to say there was an encrypted email for him. He needed a code to access it. Strange, Johan thought. He phoned Dramat’s personal assistant in Pretoria who gave him the code. It was from Phiyega, saying he should give her reasons why he shouldn’t be dismissed from the police.

She said the trust relationship had broken down between him and his provincial commissioner.

Johan thought he knew exactly what she was up to, trying to get rid of him just before Christmas so he couldn’t seek relief because the courts would be in recess.

I wrote back, giving Phiyega three days to withdraw the letter or else I would get an interdict to prevent her dismissing me. She didn’t, so I got an interdict. It was probably the first time in South African history that a general had obtained an interdict against the national commissioner.

Dramat suggested Johan contact police watchdog IPID [the Independent Police Investigative Directorate], whose job it was to investigate wrongdoing at the SAPS. Johan was hesitant. He had reservations about IPID executive director Robert McBride.

McBride had always been persona non grata to me. I thought he was probably a political appointment. But a lecturer I knew told me that he had done a degree in policing and was an astute student. Still I had reservations, until I had a call from him in late 2014 asking for a written report on commissioner Ngobeni. There had been a complaint in Parliament and he was acting on it.

He wrote to McBride about Phiyega: “General Phiyega does not utilise the disciplinary regulations in the spirit for which they are intended. She abuses the regulations to persecute certain individuals in order to protect others.”

Johan cited the example of Colonel [Rajen] Aiyer. A magistrate had ordered that Aiyer be investigated for contaminating a crime scene and defeating the course of justice, yet no disciplinary charges had ever been put to him. And he mentioned Western Cape provincial commissioner, General Arno Lamoer, whom Phiyega had tipped off about a Hawks investigation into his alleged involvement with crime syndicates.

“General Phiyega,” he wrote, “had an obligation in terms of police regulations to initiate disciplinary steps. As a primary custodian of the Constitution, she is obliged to exercise her mandate in a fair and equitable manner. She has, however, demonstrated the converse.’

Something else that Phiyega had done was to demand the recordings of Panday’s intercepted phone calls. These were in the possession of Colonel Brian Padayachee, from KwaZulu-Natal crime intelligence. She knew about them because Padayachee had written to her and to Dramat, saying: “The intercepts revealed very sensitive information implicating high-profile individuals who have had a corrupt relationship with Mr Panday. Payment for favours was evident.”

In an affidavit, Padayachee had stated: “The intercepts further revealed how Mr Panday was assisted by several police officials in obtaining crime scene photographs to conspire against Major General Booysen. These very photographs were subsequently leaked to the media and published in the Sunday Times, which eventually led to the criminal charges and suspension of Major General Booysen.”

Padayachee was suspended for his efforts, after 33 years in the police. He wrote to Phiyega: “I sought your guidance and assistance with this investigation but instead departmental action has been initiated against me.”

Johan wrote his report to McBride on a Saturday.

By the Sunday he had read it and had responded. Within a week he had sent investigators to KwaZulu-Natal. He gets things done. Normally when police officials from out of town have work to do in Durban they book into hotels and take as long as possible at state expense.

Not at IPID under McBride. I was impressed. Like me, he’s a bit of a slave driver.

After the preliminary report had been written, McBride flew to Durban to discuss the case with Johan. They might have once differed ideologically, but now they had a common purpose. Johan began to respect him.

He’s intelligent and grasped the dynamics of the case. I can be a bit forceful, I know, but he doesn’t force his ideas and doesn’t pretend to know everything. All my negative feelings towards him dissipated. What struck me about him is that he doesn’t give up. He told me he would pursue the matter and he did.

McBride arranged a meeting for Johan with prosecutor Gerrie Nel, auditors PwC and a team from IPID. Johan and the PwC forensic auditor presented them with the facts of the Panday/Ngobeni case.

At the end, Nel said: “So what’s the problem — why can’t you prosecute?” He said it was clear-cut: we should first pursue the R2-million attempted bribery case and then the R15-million corruption case involving Panday, but that we should redo the phone transcripts between him and [Captain] Kevin Stephen — they weren’t clear enough — so IPID had them redone, word for word. What came up on the intercept transcripts the second time round was that Panday and [police procurement officer Navin] Madhoe had something on Stephen and were threatening to reveal all unless he got the documentation Panday wanted.

In the meantime, McBride had written and personally delivered a letter to Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, who in May that year, 2014, had replaced Nathi Mthethwa. McBride recommended that Phiyega be suspended to allow IPID to investigate her.

“Watch,” he said to Johan. “I’ll be next.”

Never, thought Johan. Surely McBride was one of the untouchables.

This is an edited extract from Blood on Their Hands: General Johan Booysen Reveals His Truth, published by Picador.

Jessica Pitchford is a veteran journalist who has worked for Special Assignment and Carte Blanche, among others.

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