Trial by public opinion: Why the Hawks stand accused of fighting the ANC’s battles

A crack police investigative unit is being sucked into a political crisis engulfing South Africa’s ruling party as it faces allegations that it’s being used to settle scores as President Jacob Zuma’s enforcer.

Its most high-profile target has been Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, whom the Hawks have been investigating for allegedly overseeing an allegedly illegal investigative unit at the state revenue agency almost a decade ago. The minister says the unit was legal and approved by the government. The probe comes as Zuma rebuffed Gordhan’s request to fire the nation’s tax chief and delayed his attempts to install a new board at the loss-making state airline.

At stake is the independence of the democratic institutions set up in 1994 at the end of white-minority rule in an intensifying battle for control of state resources a year before Zuma is due to step down as leader of the African National Congress.

While Zuma denies he’s behind the Gordhan probe, Enoch Godongwana, the head of the ANC’s economic transformation committee, told Johannesburg-based broadcaster eNCA that the investigation is “concocted” and politically motivated in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.

“We are turning into a mafia state,” said Robert McBride, head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the police ombudsman, who was reinstated on September 6 after the Constitutional Court ruled his suspension by Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko was unlawful. “It’s a power game to loot, rob and steal.”

‘Without prejudice’
The Hawks have denied their investigations are political, with spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi saying that “we are mandated to investigate without fear, favour or prejudice”.

Zuma has rejected reports that he’s at odds with Gordhan, telling parliament on Tuesday that “there is no war between the presidency and the treasury.” His comment was a reference to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement last month that “when a government works well it should be a government that does not wage war with itself.”

The controversies have weighed on the rand and the nation’s bonds and heightened the risk of the country’s credit rating being downgraded to junk by the end of the year. The rand has weakened almost 6% against the dollar since the first reports emerged that Gordhan faced being arrested. Analysts, opposition parties and Godongwana have said the move is a way to remove him from the cabinet and install a more “pliant” finance minister.

Arms deal
Zuma himself was once on the wrong end of investigations by the predecessor of the Hawks, the Scorpions, which was disbanded in 2008. It conducted a string of probes that led to the conviction of top officials, including Schabir Shaik, Zuma’s financial adviser. The unit also examined Zuma for corruption related to an arms deal, leading to 783 charges that were dropped early in 2009, paving the way for him to become president that year.

“One can say, similar scenes are playing out again, where law enforcing agencies are being used to meddle in internal political party matters,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Cape Town-based Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution. “There is selective prioritizing of investigations and it seems to suggest there is a political agenda.”

The Hawks’s boss, Berning Ntlemeza, is facing charges of corruption and defeating the ends of justice linked to a missing docket when was deputy head of the police in Limpopo province. Criminal cases against Ntlemeza, and the deputy head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Nomgcobo Jiba, who faces fraud and perjury charges, aren’t progressing, McBride said in an interview.

Independent institutions
“Evidence shows that real cases have been neglected, put in cupboards to gather dust while there have been these attacks on independent institutions to render them useless, and make the ombudsman toothless,” he said.

High Court Judge Elias Matojane ruled last year that Ntlemeza was biased and dishonest, and lacked integrity after he made false statements under oath. Civil-society groups such as Freedom Under Law and the Helen Suzman Foundation are campaigning for Ntlemeza to be removed from his post.

His predecessor, Anwa Dramat, was suspended over allegations of involvement in the arrest and illegal deportation of four Zimbabweans and resigned last year, saying he was targeted for conducting probes of “very influential people.”

Dramat, McBride and Ivan Pillay, a former deputy head of the tax agency who’s also being investigated by the Hawks, said in a joint statement in May that there’s a political conspiracy aimed at blocking the fight against crime.

“In one-party dominant societies, public institutions are the first to be hollowed out,” said Pierre De Vos, a professor of Public law at the University of Cape Town. “South Africa is not so special in that regard.”

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