R45m ‘grabber’ case from 2017 haunts top cop Sitole

The two-year legal wrangle over R45-million that was allegedly used by police crime intelligence to influence the ANC’s 2017 national conference could see the end of national police commissioner Khehla Sitole’s tenure as top cop. 

After being chastised as “irresponsible” and allegedly having his authority undermined by Police Minister Bheki Cele, Sitole is on the verge of being suspended by President Cyril Ramaphosa

Sitole, in a year in which he has had to fend off alleged attacks from the police minister, received a letter on 20 September from Ramaphosa, who asked the commissioner to send him representations as to why he should not suspend the top cop. 

On Thursday, Ramaphosa said in a statement that the notice of suspension was related to a January Pretoria high court judgment, which found that Sitole had been intransigent in assisting the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) with unravelling the R45-million the police service spent on surveillance devices, known as “grabbers”, ahead of the ANC’s 2017 conference. 

The directorate’s star witness in this matter, Brigadier Tiyani Hlungwani — a crime intelligence officer, who was the head of finance responsible for the secret services account — wrote in an affidavit seen by the Mail & Guardian that Sitole and then acting head of crime intelligence, Major General King Ngcobo, had agitated for the procurement of a spying device for R45-million, which Hlungwani said retailed for aboutR10-million.

Ipid said in 2019 that it had probed the alleged flouting of procurement processes for the grabbers, but was met with resistance from the South African Police Service (SAPS). 

“The Ipid conducted an investigation, which required the declassification of certain information in the custody of crime intelligence and [the] SAPS. Subpoenas were issued for certain officials to provide this information. They challenged the subpoenas in the [Pretoria high court],” Ipid said in 2019.  

It is this case that has resulted in the presidency writing to Sitole and asking him to provide reasons why he should not be suspended. 

“The president has indicated to the national commissioner that the issues arising from the [Pretoria] high court judgment are serious. The president has, in terms of sSection 9 of the South African Police Services Act of 1995 … deemed it appropriate at this stage to institute a board of inquiry into the national commissioner’s alleged misconduct and fitness to hold the office of national commissioner of police,” the presidency stated.

“This is merited by the public interest in the integrity of the office of the national commissioner. The president outlined this context in his letter to general Sitole and gave the commissioner 14 days in which to respond,” the statement continued.

“The commissioner has since submitted representations in this regard. While the president considers these representations, further engagement on this matter will be between the president and the national commissioner.”

Meanwhile, guns have been out for Sitole this year after a succession of letters, which began in June, from Cele, who has been accused of interfering in police operational matters.

In one scathing letter, Cele called Sitole “irresponsible” for making senior appointments within the police without the minister’s “consideration and concurrence”. The minister then ordered Sitole to reverse these appointments. 

“You, therefore, blatantly ignored my instructions and the provisions of the SAPS employment regulations 2018 when you went ahead and announced these appointments. Your disregard for my position as the executive authority of the department of police and relevant regulations is regarded as serious and will not be tolerated,” Cele wrote.  

“Your irresponsible actions further opened the department to possible litigation and disputes.” 

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Khaya Koko
Khaya Koko is a journalist with a penchant for reading through legal documents braving the ravages of cold court benches to expose the crooked. He writes about social justice and human-interest stories. Most importantly, he is a card-carrying member of the Mighty Orlando Pirates.

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