Frank Dutton: A life lived for justice

Frank Kennan Dutton, who died on 19 January aged 72, was born on 20 May 1949. He was South Africa’s preeminent detective, who solved some of the most important cases in South Africa’s history in his 40-year career as a police detective. 

He was the first commander of the former Directorate of Special Operations (also known as the Scorpions). Frank also played leading roles in complex investigations in South Africa and many other countries, including Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Sudan (Darfur), Afghanistan, DRC, Cameroon, Uganda, Nigeria, Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Brazil and East Timor.   

In 2012 Frank was awarded the Order of Baobab in Gold by the President of South Africa for policing work locally and abroad. The citation read in part: “Awarded for his exceptional contribution to and achievement in his investigative work as a dedicated and loyal policeman, for exposing the apartheid government’s ‘Third Force’; for his role in working for peace in KwaZulu-Natal; his international work in investigating and exposing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia‚ Kosovo and Darfur; and assisting in establishing the causes of violence in East Timor and Sudan.”

In recent years he had begun to dedicate himself to investigating “cold” cases from the apartheid era.  His investigations paved the way for reopening of the inquests into the deaths of detention of Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett, as well as the indictment relating to the murder of Nokuthula Simelane.   

At the time of his death, he was a lead investigator with the Investigating Directorate into State Capture.

Frank joined the South African Police on 1 August 1966. After undergoing a year’s police training in Pretoria, he was posted to KwaZulu-Natal where he performed general policing duties at Greenwood Park, Glendale and Tongaat police stations. While serving at Tongaat in 1971 he was appointed as a detective. Since then, he worked as a detective/investigator for the rest of his career.  

He was transferred to Pinetown Detective Branch in 1979, promoted to a commissioned officer in 1983 and appointed as the head of the Durban West field unit responsible for investigating cases of serious violence. 

Political violence escalated in KZN from the mid-1980s and hundreds of political violence cases were investigated under his command. Some of these cases exposed the hidden hand of the then South African government and its security forces in instigating and fuelling political violence. The most prominent of these investigations was the murder investigation and conviction of Samuel Jamile (the former deputy minister of the interior for the KwaZulu government); and the Trust Feed case in which South African Police Captain Brian Mitchell and several KwaZulu police officers were convicted on thirteen counts of murder. In 1992, then-President Nelson Mandela highlighted the Trust Feed case and the contribution that this case had made towards the successful negotiations for a democratic South Africa. 

In 1992 Frank was appointed to head the KwaZulu-Natal investigation team of the Goldstone Commission. This led to, among other things, the exposure of the workings of the SAP security branch’s activities under the command of former Colonel Eugene de Kock at Vlakplaas and the role and association of the South African Police top command in political violence.

After the commission published its report on state-sponsored violence implicating senior government cabinet ministers and the command structure of the South African security forces, Frank was appointed to serve on a special investigation team headed by the then-Attorney General of the Transvaal‚ Dr D’Oliveira, and charged with conducting criminal investigations into the issues raised by the commission’s report. He assisted in debriefing witnesses in Denmark and obtaining affidavits from them. This resulted in the arrest of Eugene de Kock and others. 

In 1994, Frank was appointed by the then-Minister of Safety and Security‚ Sydney Mufamadi‚ to establish and command the Investigation Task Unit (ITU) to investigate hit squads within the KwaZulu police. These investigations exposed a network of hit squads trained and created by the South African Defence Force for the Inkatha Freedom Party.  It also exposed the use of hit squads within the erstwhile KwaZulu Police.  

In 1996 Mandela seconded Frank to the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where he assisted in the ICTY’s investigations into genocide‚ war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Croatia. He was eventually appointed to head the ICTY Office in Sarajevo where he facilitated all ICTY investigations (including the exhumations of mass graves) in Bosnia. In 1998 he was promoted to the rank of Commander and commanded all field investigations in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. 

In 1999 Frank facilitated the initial field investigations into the forced evictions of Albanians from Kosovo by the Serb security forces, establishing investigation units in Tirana, Albania and Skopje, Macedonia. These investigations resulted in indictments being issued against President Slobodan Milosevic and other senior officials for crimes against humanity. 

Frank returned to South Africa in December 1999 after being recalled by the South African government, was appointed as a director general in the department of justice and tasked to establish and head the Scorpions, then a new specialised investigative unit. He remained in this position until his retirement in April 2004 after 38 years of service. 

After retirement – a second career

Since his retirement Frank worked internationally and locally as a policing expert and private investigator. He was selected by a UN Security Council-appointed commission of inquiry to investigate and assist the commission in determining the causes of violence in Darfur during the latter part of 2004. He was appointed in 2005 by UN Mission in the DRC to investigate incidents of sexual abuse against women. He also investigated incidents of violence for a Security Council-appointed panel of experts for Sudan in 2005 and 2006.

On behalf of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) investigated the cause of an explosion in the living quarters of UN staff members in Afghanistan during 2006. He headed an investigation team appointed by the UN General Assembly to determine the causes of violence in East Timor during 2006. He investigated and recovered missing SAM 6 missiles in Afghanistan during 2007 on behalf of UNDP. 

He was selected to serve on a South African panel to review the evidence against South African Police commissioner Jackie Selebi during 2007 and to make a recommendation to the director of national prosecutions in respect of prosecution.

On behalf of the World Bank Frank investigated procurement irregularities in the awarding of a multi-billion-dollar hydro-electric power contract in the DRC. The contract was shown to be corrupt and was subsequently withdrawn.  He conducted investigations on behalf of UNDP into incidents of serious staff corruption in South Africa‚ Mozambique‚ Brazil‚ Liberia‚ Cameroon‚ Ghana‚ Ethiopia and Zimbabwe at various times between 2006 and 2011. Working from Geneva, he investigated embezzlement of funds from malaria programmes in Kyrgyzstan, India and various African countries in 2009 and 2010.

In 2011 he was appointed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to conduct an assessment on the Seychelles Police Service, and was then appointed by the Seychelles government to re-structure the Seychelles Police Service to bring about a reduction in spiralling national crime. While serving in the Seychelles he headed the investigations into international piracy incidents, which occurred in the high sea surrounding Seychelles. As a result, more than a hundred Somalian pirates were convicted in the Seychelles. This, together with other international measures, particularly the assistance of international naval forces, significantly reduced incidents of piracy in this region.  

In September 2015 he was appointed as a commissioner to serve on the national planning commission. In 2017 he was asked to advise the KZN provincial government on steps to reduce rhino poaching in the province. 

On 8 August 2018 he commenced working as an investigator for the commission of inquiry into state capture (the Zondo commission) and worked there until he joined the Investigating Directorate into state capture during 2021.

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Howard Varney
Howard Varney is an advocate and a senior programme adviser with the International Centre for Transitional Justice

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