He’s got the title of Hawks boss, but many a time people are searching for a reason to get him axed. And now South Africans are finding some hypocrisy in General Berning Ntlemeza’s appointment as head of the anti-corruption task team. But what’s all the fuss about?
Who is this Ntlemeza guy anyway?
Ntlemeza hails from the Eastern Cape. In the midst of apartheid in 1981, Ntlemeza found himself joining the South African Police Service in Transkei and then went on to complete a degree in police science at the University of Transkei in 1989.
Though it might have been a little shady for a black man to serve as a police officer during one of the bloodiest years of apartheid, Ntlemeza went on to rise through the ranks to become deputy provincial commissioner for the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, with some serious skills in crime detection, investigation and intelligence services.
But just a short while before Ntlemeza was appointed the head of the Hawks, Pretoria high court Judge Elias Matojane described him in less complimentary terms, which was perhaps one of the first memorable occasions Ntlemeza got burned.
“I am of the view that the conduct of the third respondent [Ntlemeza] shows that he is biased and dishonest. To show that the third respondent is biased, lacks integrity and honour, he made false statements under oath,” Judge Matojane said.
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Spin-doctoring the courts
Ntlemeza’s predecessor at the Hawks, Anwa Dramat, and the Gauteng head of the Hawks, Shadrack Sibiya, were ousted from their positions after allegations emerged that they had been involved in the illegal rendition of five Zimbabweans to Zimbabwean police in 2010 and 2011.
Sibiya, at the time, said he was being targeted because he had investigated and arrested former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli. Sibiya called Ntlemeza, who had suspended him, a “Mdluli ally” and it emerged that the Hawks head had compiled a report and exonerated Mdluli in an investigation into the death of Mdluli’s ex-girlfriend’s husband.
Judge Matojane made his comments after he found that Ntlemeza had swept two Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) reports that exonerated Sibiya under the rug. He had also suggested that a key witness in the rendition case had died under suspicious circumstances when a death certificate stated that the death was from natural causes. At the time, Ntlemeza was acting Hawks head after Dramat had been suspended.
“The third respondent [Ntlemeza] elected to withhold from the court the IPID report and the docket that was in his possession, to enable the court to make a proper assessment of the strength or otherwise of the case against the applicant [Gauteng Hawks head Shadrack Sibiya],” said Matojane.
But in 2015, the same year the judge made his scathing remarks that severely damaged Ntlemeza’s credibility, the latter was appointed as Hawks boss.
The other skeletons that have come out the closet
In October 2015, investigative journalism unit amaBhungane reported that Ntlemeza had ignored a report sent to him during his time as deputy commissioner in Limpopo. The report, submitted by Limpopo-based Lieutenant Boitumelo Ramahlaha, claimed that one of his officers was “defrauding the police by making false travel claims”.
“Ramahlaha alleged Ntlemeza protected the officer because the man was dating Ntlemeza’s daughter”, amaBhungane reported.
The “Ramahlaha case”, as it came to be known, accused the Hawks head of defeating the ends of justice. It was investigated by IPID when the organisation was still headed by Robert McBride (he was later suspended in 2015 by the police minister for allegedly altering a report about Sibiya and Dramat’s involvement in the renditions and is now being investigated by the Hawks). After McBride was suspended, amaBhungane reported that Ramahlala realised that the Hawks were pursuing an investigation against him.
In May 2016, Ramahlala opened a case against Ntlemeza after a police docket from his original case went missing. In his new case, he accused Ntlemeza of corruption and defeating the ends of justice. In response to the new development, Ntlemeza’s spokesperson said the general was annoyed.
“He can open a case, that’s his right. But we are getting annoyed at all his cases. Why is he targeting the general when the general is not investigating the case. Why is he wasting his time?” Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi told IOL.
It is up to the National Prosecuting Authority to decide how the case will proceed, but deputy national director Nomgcobo Jiba has worked closely with Ntlemeza.
Beyond Ramahlaha, the Hawks boss is currently dealing with a far more public war.
Ntlemeza vs Gordhan
When the Hawks sent Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan an infamous batch of 27 questions, the finance minister very publicly refused to respond. The Sunday Independent reported that Ntlemeza sent an aggravated letter following this blatant refusal to submit: he warned that the Hawks would ensure its investigation was not obstructed “by unco-operative conduct … warranting resorting to other forms to ensure compliance”.
But, as the Daily Maverick reported, Gordhan made public statements that he did not receive such a letter, which means that the Hawks had leaked Ntlemeza’s letter directy to the newspaper instead of delivering it to Gordhan.
“So where is this mysterious letter? Why does one journalist among the press seem to have something at hand but the people to whom it is directed don’t? Also, why ‘leak’ a letter that has to be still studied and responded to – to further use harassment and intimidatory tactics like the old Security Police did?” Gordhan asked.
Earlier this year, Ntlemeza confirmed the Hawks were indeed investigating Gordhan over the so-called mysterious South African Revenue Service (Sars) “rogue unit” that allegedly existed under his leadership.
It’s widely believed that the investigation has no basis because there’s a lack of evidence to support that a “rogue unit” ever existed at Sars. During a sitting in Parliament on Wednesday, Ntlemeza shied away from any mention of Gordhan and Sars, but the investigation has had a crippling effect on the South African economy, with international investors looking on at the instability.
So why is Ntlemeza and his Hawks investigating Gordhan?
Ntlemeza has a close relationship with Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, who defended the Hawks when it sent its 27 questions to Gordhan, and suspended McBride after the IPID’s report favoured Sibiya.
Nhleko in turn, has also shown loyalty to the presidency, once going so far as to release a report about Nkandla that absolved President Zuma from any wrongdoing.
With the presidency allegedly involved in state capture and Gordhan seen as one of the biggest obstacles to the capturing of treasury, the smokescreen around Ntlemeza seems to be part of the web that is aiding state capture.
For now, it’s just speculation, but it’s clear that the Hawks boss has some smallyana skeletons of his own.