South Africa: Who guards the guardians?
Cupid can wait. Early on Valentine’s Day, the only winged creature swooping over Saxonwold was an elite unit of the South African police known as the Hawks. The Hawks’ raid electrified the country, which had become used to seeing the Gupta brothers – close allies of former president Jacob Zuma –pushing around the political elite rather than sitting in police cars.
Zuma’s strategy to secure control of the African National Congress (ANC) and the government was to appoint pliant allies to control the security and prosecuting authorities. That also helped to stall or erase corruption investigations and prosecutions targeting him. But as power swings to President Cyril Ramaphosa, many conscientious operatives within these sectors – clubbed into submission by Zuma-aligned bosses – are now fighting back.
Talking about the changes he wants to see, Ramaphosa said in March: “It was like praying, praying to our God, saying please come down and heal South Africa, come and heal our land. South Africa is being healed ’cause there’s a new dawn, a new spirit flowing.”
Back on earth, those government officials are pushing suppressed prosecutions and enthusiastically moving on cases that had long gathered dust. The Hawks have certainly been busier than usual. The arrests in Saxonwold were of suspects in the Vrede dairy scandal, in which government funding for black farmers was said to have been funnelled away to pay for the wedding of a Gupta family member.
The Hawks later raided the offices of the Free State premier, then occupied by Ace Magashule, the ANC’s new secretary general. It was under his watch that the Vrede money was disbursed. They moved on to the provincial department of agriculture, the former tenure of Mosebenzi Zwane. Both men are close allies of Zuma and the Guptas.
The depth to which the various security services have been penetrated will limit the speed with which Ramaphosa can act. In both the raid on the Guptas’ Saxonwold compound and the Vrede scandal, suspects were tipped off. Police officers said they found “a warm bed” in Saxonwold, and Gupta brother Ajay is still on the run.
In the Vrede case, acting Hawks boss Yolisa Matakata told parliament’s police portfolio committee that the Hawks had referred their investigation to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in November 2017. But they only got the go-ahead for the raids from NPA head Shaun Abrahams, a Zuma ally, in February 2018. That shows how hard this particular tanker will be to turn around.
However, Ramaphosa has racked up some early successes by placing officials with staunch anti-corruption credentials in charge of the key ministries of finance, police and state-owned enterprises. Reshuffling his cabinet in February, Ramaphosa sacked Fikile Mbalula as police minister and appointed former police commissioner Bheki Cele. He also replaced state security minister Bongani Bongo with Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba.
SARS: the rot within
Almost immediately after Ramaphosa reappointed finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, head of tax and financial policy Ismail Momoniat – unprecedentedly for a civil servant – said that there are “massive” corruption and governance failures in the South African Revenue Service (SARS). As Zuma put his placemen into key institutions to wear down the teeth of South Africa’s justice system, SARS remained the last bastion to retain any bite. Its investigative service is believed to have incriminating evidence against Zuma and his acolytes.
Pravin Gordhan set up SARS, and many of its top staff worked under him for a decade before he became finance minister and eventually Zuma’s most heavyweight critic within the ANC and government. But SARS is now led by Zuma ally Tom Moyane. Critics from inside and outside the ANC say SARS has been ignoring tax irregularities and allowing Zuma allies to channel money abroad. Furthermore, Moyane has been accused of purging perceived anti-Zuma SARS officials. In this financial year, South Africa reported a tax revenue shortfall of R50bn ($4.2bn).
Nene told the Federation of Unions of South Africa conference on 8 March that he is interested in reappointing former SARS senior staffers Ivan Pillay, Johann van Loggerenberg and Andries Janse van Rensburg, who had been pushed out under Moyane. Interestingly, just a day after Nene’s comments, the Hawks recharged those three over claims they spied on the NPA’s Scorpions unit. The three are due to appear in court on 9 April. This is most likely a pre-emptive strike by the Zuma people in SARS and the Hawks.
Gordhan will be crucial to Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption fight. He is the new public enterprises minister, and many Zuma associates used parastatals for patronage while the police – especially its intelligence services – the tax authorities and the NPA looked the other way.
Michael Masutha has remained justice minister and thus has oversight over the country’s prosecuting authorities. He is also in charge of constituting all the commissions of inquiry into corruption – making him a powerful pillar of the anti-corruption fight. Masutha is a recent convert to the Ramaphosa cause, and retaining him is a gamble.
Masutha is not the only one to have changed his vest in a hurry when the wind started blowing in Ramaphosa’s direction. Hawks acting boss Matakata previously worked for 15 years in the Crime Intelligence (CI) division, which was controlled either by apartheid-era agents or Zuma subordinates from his days as head of the ANC’s military intelligence in exile. These included Richard Mdluli, who was suspended on corruption and murder charges in 2012.
State security minister Letsatsi-Duba is another unknown quantity for Ramaphosa. She is also a late convert who worked with Zuma in the ANC intelligence structures in the 1980s. No doubt knowing that she would be scrutinised, Letsatsi-Duba told the Mail & Guardian newspaper in her first official interview that her two Zuma-ally predecessors – David Mahlobo and Bongani Bongo – were ineffective as ministers.
But beyond the thin ice of shifting loyalties, there are more substantial roadblocks to reform. They come in the shape of die-hard Zuma loyalists still in their positions and able to help shield their patron from investigations.
Leave it to the lawyers
Because Zuma himself represents the pinnacle of any corruption investigation, Ramaphosa is leaving the ex-president’s fate to the state capture inquiry that is about to start. But there will be hurdles.
First on the list of roadblocks to both a Zuma conviction and broader reform is Abrahams, the NPA head. He has delayed, blocked and tried to stop the prosecution of more than 700 charges of corruption Zuma faces related to multibillion-dollar arms deals signed in the mid-1990s.
But here, Ramaphosa is in limbo. The courts are about to set a date to hear an appeal against a December 2017 ruling that set aside Abrahams’ appointment. And, in a twist, justice minister Masutha told parliamentarians in March: “The competence, skill, experience that [Abrahams] exudes and displays in his work […] gives me confidence that he is the man for the job.”
A second key roadblock is State Security Agency (SSA) director-general Arthur Fraser. When Zuma came to power, he immediately reorganised the intelligence sector by merging the domestic, foreign and electronic intelligence agencies into the SSA. The SSA is a powerful agency because it vets and can block key government appointments.
But while many are clamouring for a more vigorous and visible anti-corruption drive, it may be that Ramaphosa’s strategy is that of the boa constrictor. If so, he is not going to take on corrupt Zuma allies on the ANC’s powerful executive committee directly but instead push the police and prosecuting authorities from behind to open stalled or closed investigations, going for smaller fry to get them to implicate their bosses.
The Vrede dairy corruption arrests are a case in point. The idea is that the lower-level arrestees will settle for plea bargains and inform on the political heavyweights. In March, the Hawks conducted a similar search and seizure at the offices of North West premier Supra Mahumapelo related to allegations of procurement corruption by officials in the office. It is very likely that in the near future cold cases involving deputy president David Mabuza – of which there are many – will be reopened. The strategy, it appears, is to lock these Zuma allies into endless legal battles, reducing their political power in the ANC and government, and giving Ramaphosa more space to govern.
This article first appeared in the April print edition of The Africa Report magazine