/ 8 October 2020

How graft arrests came together

7 Vbs Mutual Bank Fraud Case Accused Appear At Palm Ridge Commercial Crimes Court
Trial date: The VBS heist trial is expected to begin only in early 2022. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Unravelling the billions of rands looted from the state and arresting and securing convictions in high-profile cases is a mammoth task. Several law enforcement agencies have been coordinating their efforts for months.

The past two weeks have seen a flurry of high-profile arrests, seizures of glitzy assets that are allegedly proceeds of crime, and at least one convicted person turning state witness.

These cases represent a culmination of months of investigation and cooperation between the law enforcement agencies, including the newly set up Investigative Directorate (ID) unit in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) headed by Hermione Cronje

Coordinating the team 

Sources have given insight into how the agencies have leaned on each other’s expertise, including coordinating with the judicial commission of inquiry into allegations of state capture, and have ensured their actions do not counteract others.

About 15 senior Hawks investigators were seconded to the ID, with case dockets of high-profile investigations now under Cronje’s charge. The majority of these investigators were already working on the cases, including Free State corruption cases and other matters involving state-owned entities, while the others will lend their expertise. 

“This is a government initiative, we are [all] working for the [same] government,” said Hawks head General Godfrey Lebeya

“Our investigators are highly skilled and they understand what they’re investigating. It’s not less than four full colonels, captains, and seasoned investigators,” he added. 

“The cooperation of the agencies  has added more value to the cases. It has increased turnaround times amongst law enforcement agencies and there’s better coordination and that strengthens investigations and the criminal prosecution process,” said NPA spokesperson Sipho Ngwema.

Another insider familiar with the attachment of assets by authorities said the majority of arrests will include the seizure of assets, as seen by the slew of repossessions of luxury items this week. 

“You must remember that the cases deal with illicit financial benefits, and the state has to recoup the monies lost. This is why you have investigators from the Asset Forfeiture Unit that have been assigned to the ID,” the insider said.  

Inside the ID, investigators have been divided into three clusters: the justice, crime, correctional services and state security cluster; the state-owned enterprises cluster; and the public-private division, a source said. 

The justice cluster has around seven prosecutors, the public-private sector has two, and the state entity division has more than 10, with contracted consultants assigned to probing captured parastatals. 

“Arrests of high-profile individuals is likely to be a feature of our lives for a long time. The ID is not as big as the [disbanded] Scorpions, but it has been working around the clock.”

The insider further revealed that these cases are “prosecutor-driven investigations”, which have been designed to fast-track matters and make them trial-ready. 

“In all of the ID’s cases, you will find that the prosecution team goes to court with either a draft or finalised charge sheet, as well copies of the docket to share with the defence team. 

“There is no time to waste.”

VBS a case in point

This contention was best illustrated on Thursday during the second appearance of the seven VBS suspects at the Johannesburg specialised commercial crimes court. 

Prosecutor Hein van der Merwe asserted in court that the state would push for a trial date at the next appearance in January following additional arrests and charges. Last week the Mail & Guardian reported that more arrests were expected — including of politicians — in the matter. 

Van der Merwe told the court that the new docket and charge sheet would be completed before the end of the year.

“The disclosures will be done before the end of this year. This includes copies of the charge sheet and the docket. We are at an advanced stage and we’re almost ready to formalise the new charge sheet,” he said.

A source close to the NPA said arrests would still be made in the matter because prosecutors had learnt their lesson from the fraud and corruption case involving Schabir Shaik and former president Jacob Zuma. Shaik was first in the dock and convicted in 2005 and, 15 years later, Zuma’s trial has yet to begin. 

“The NPA does not want to make the same mistake where you get through one case and have to call witnesses again for the same matter but with different accused.” 

Turning the corruptor and corruptee on each other

One of the first convictions was secured this week in the looting of nearly R3-billion at the VBS Mutual Bank.

Former VBS chief financial officer Phillip Truter was sentenced to an effective seven years in prison in a plea bargain deal that is set to blow the investigation into the looting of the now-defunct bank wide open.

With the sentencing of Truter on Wednesday — thanks to a guilty plea deal that will see him provide evidence against his co-accused, who have all pleaded not guilty — the state has a witness who will unravel how almost R3-billion of the government’s and the elderly poor’s money was siphoned out of the bank.  

General Lebeya said the plea bargain was one of the state’s instruments to guarantee convictions, particularly those of powerful masterminds. “In corruption, it’s two of you: The corruptor and the corruptee. If the two of you decide to close ranks, it is difficult [because] who is a witness [to the fact] that there was corruption that took place?” 

However, he added, “We must always make sure that you must get something too [a prison sentence or fine], you can’t go away scot-free.”

Ace plagiarises Zuma playbook 

This week the wave of arrests took a political spin when ANC secretary general Ace Magashule dropped a bombshell that he had been told an arrest warrant with his name had been signed, and that a “Hollywood-style” arrest would be affected. 

His revelation late on Tuesday prompted two statements from individuals purporting to represent ANC youth structures in Limpopo and Free State provinces, while the ANC issued a statement in his defence. 

Magashule’s revelations and concerns were in line with a developing narrative among the “radical economic transformation” faction of the ANC that the recent arrests were attempts to intimidate and embarrass their leaders. 

A source close to the Free State investigation, where Magashule’s name has popped up numerous times, said there was no warrant of arrest nor any communication with Magashule or his lawyers.

“There are three other suspects in the case who were meant to have been arrested this week but there were some delays,” the source said. “This thing [the alleged warrant] was cooked. There are similarities to what happened with the old man [Zuma]. This was a pre-emptive move that was aimed at disrupting the process.” 

The initial arrests in the Free State had seen attempts by Magashule’s supporters to start mobilising around those arrested and him.

The source added: “When you sense what is coming, you start to activate your structures and stir up emotions, just like the master [Zuma] all those years ago. You create these fictitious things — remember how the questions to Zuma were leaked before when things were poised to go ahead?”

Big bust cases: More arrests to come

  • R255-million Free State asbestos tender
  • R245-million Free State agricultural projects (Vrede dairy farm)
  • R3-billion VBS Mutual Bank heist
  • R47-million 2010 Fifa World Cup police accommodation scandal
  • R191-million fraud and corruption case involving former national police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane
  • R1.8-billion Bosasa state capture company corruption case
  • R4.8-million from the Limpopo Makgatho Community Property Association
  • Transnet
  • SAA
  • Denel
  • Giyani water project
  • R450-million eThekwini municipality tender corruption
  • Strategic Fuel Fund
  • Prasa