17 April 2024 | 08:20 PM

Mdluli move just smoke and mirrors

Key Takeaways

A variety of pressures appear to have forced Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to beat a strategic retreat by transferring Lieutenant General Richard Mdluli from his post as head of crime intelligence.

But Mthethwa’s statement to Parliament this week also makes it clear that the war for the control of police intelligence-gathering and investigation is far from over.

Mthethwa said that he had asked chief state law adviser Enver Daniels to investigate a letter written by Mdluli to President Jacob Zuma in November last year in which he alleged he had received information that the charges made against him were part of a plot by senior generals.

Mdluli said his sources named Hawks boss Anwa Dramat, operational services head Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya, Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant General Mzwandile Petros and suspended police commissioner General Bheki Cele as being among them.

Mthethwa told Parliament: “This letter seems to have political connotations and has caused tensions within the management of SAPS. It alludes to some conspiracy theory of some in the management ganging up against him.

“I have instituted a task team, led by the state law adviser, to investigate such allegations because they are so serious as to suggest the meddling of policing functions in politics.”

News reports said that acting commissioner Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi raised concerns with Zuma that Mdluli’s allegations were creating divisions among his staff.

What Mdluli himself has dubbed “a media campaign and propaganda” appears also to have gained significant public and political traction, forcing the minister to deflect some of the criticism over Mdluli’s reinstatement as crime intelligence boss.

A wide spectrum of commentators have been highly critical of Zuma’s perceived backing of Mdluli, despite serious allegations about his involvement in a 1999 murder and in abuses of the secret services account.

Mkhwanazi, initially regarded as having been appointed because he was young and pliable, has played a key role in pushing back against political manipulation and countering efforts to spin the Mdluli story.

He has been remarkably frank in public statements.

In what were interpreted as comments relating to the Mdluli investigation, Mkhwanazi spoke in Parliament last month about “other powers beyond us” influencing how cases were managed.

And on SAFM radio this week, he insisted the corruption docket on Mdluli had been referred back to the acting director of public prosecutions Nomcebo Jiba for a decision.

It is the same case that suspended senior prosecutor Glynnis Brey­ten­bach has challenged Jiba to reinstate.

Mkhwanazi reiterated that the allegations against Mdluli were “serious” and were still the subject of an internal “departmental” probe.

But if Mdluli is a proxy for a factional battle to control key aspects of the security cluster, then Mthethwa’s address in Parliament was by no means a capitulation.

  • First, he resisted calls to suspend Mdluli.
    Instead Mdluli will still be a powerful presence next to Mkhwanazi’s right-hand man, current overall operational commander Fanie Masemola.

    A source sympathetic to Cele said that Masemola, before his recent elevation, was hand-picked to head the VIP division and Mdluli’s shift to operations “is still strategic enough”.

    Mdluli will also be able to keep a close eye on Lebeya, who is in the same division, headed the disciplinary process against Mdluli and is seen as a key adversary.

  • Second, it appears the minister’s task team will be encouraged to take seriously the allegations of a plot against Mdluli.

    According to a source close to Mkhwanazi, he was at one point warned against being seen as the “fifth conspirator” against Mdluli.

    At the very least, the new investigation will buy time — a strategy of divert and delay that Zuma knows very well from his own legal battles — and that has been used repeatedly in the Mdluli saga.

  • Third, the bid to take some heat off Mdluli is regarded by the Cele camp as a possible precursor to taking action against the suspended police commissioner.

    The commission of inquiry into Cele’s fitness for office announced this week that it was on the point of submitting its report.

    Said a source close to Cele: “We suspect the commission has called for Cele’s head but this was going to be more problematic within an ANC that is already up in arms over the Mdluli affair.”

    He said no action on Mdluli would have been difficult to sell politically: “You shield and reinstate an apartheid-era thug-cop, and bullet a senior comrade, MK [Umkhonto weSiz­we] veteran, ex-[Robben] Islander … for supply chain management transgressions.

    He said the police lease saga in which Cele was embroiled had diverted public attention from stories about political hit squads operating in Mpumalanga.

    “I would not be surprised if Cele is, once again, being lined [up] as the gladiator whose public death is meant to distract the Romans outside the ANC from the Mdluli saga.”

  • Fourth, Mthethwa’s announcement about Mdluli was embedded among other commitments to pursue what can be regarded as politically charged investigations.

    Two of those were prompted by scoops in the Sunday Times.

    The first relates to allegations of senior members of the Hawks being involved in the forced “rendition” of Zimbabwean nationals.

    In October last year, the newspaper gave details of refugees who were killed after being abducted and handed over to Zimbabwean security personnel.

    Senior Gauteng Hawks officer Major General Shadrack Sibiya was named as a key player.

    But Sibiya drove the resurrection of the 1999 murder case in which Mdluli was implicated and it is understood his investigation of Mdluli was supported directly by Cele.

    Mthethwa told Parliament: “The Civilian Secretariat for Police is almost through with a preliminary report on the allegations. This suggests that this matter will require further action.”

    The other investigation highlighted by Mthethwa was also a front-page story in the Sunday Times, alleging that a unit operating under the overall command of KwaZulu-Natal Hawks boss Johan Booysen was effectively a hit squad.

    Booysen is also regarded as a key ally of Cele.

    Referring to “allegations on murders and tortures by the Hawks team in Cato Manor”, Mthethwa said they were the subject of an invest­igation by the independent police investigative directorate with a team from the Hawks’ national office.

He also announced he had ordered an investigation into the police technology management division, which controls a budget of approximately R2.6-billion.

In December Mthethwa said he had discovered “another act of mismanagement” in the SAPS.

Not named but implicated was Major General Mzondeki “Sean” Tshaba­lala, who was shifted from technology management to the SAPS inspectorate, widely regarded as a “graveyard” posting.

Tshabalala, a former head of VIP protection, was perceived to be close to former police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

The subsequent appointment of a former consultant, BS Ngubane, to take over as divisional commissioner for technology management was described by one source as “a pre-emptive move” by Mthethwa.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s. www.amabhungane.co.za.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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