Cele: week 1 of blows

2012-03-10 19:36

As soon as he took the witness stand in his own defence this week, suspended police commissioner Bheki Cele seems to have painted himself into a corner.

Cele is the subject of an inquiry headed by Judge Jake Moloi – and despite a good start to the week for the suspended top cop, things soon took a turn for the worse as far as Cele was concerned.

The holes poked in his defence by the state, his own admission that he did not properly scrutinise the R500m Middestad lease deal for police headquarters and his unconvincing testimony, left Moloi visibly annoyed.

Moloi’s reactions to Cele’s responses were somehow more telling about the top cop’s culpability in the lease saga than Cele’s own admission that he did not pay enough attention to leases for the Middestad building in Pretoria and another building in Durban.

With every statement, the usually brash Cele seemed to dig holes even his reputable defence advocate Vincent Maleka may struggle to extract him from when the inquiry resumes tomorrow.

As was the case when his predecessor Jackie Selebi took the stand in his own defence, Cele’s testimony and admissions may lead directly to his downfall.

Cele explained that he trusted “too many” of his subordinates, particularly his former deputy Hamilton Hlela, to ensure that the leases were properly scrutinised.

But he contradicted himself when Moloi asked why Cele put his faith in Hlela when the commissioner had acknowledged the relationship between them was “on the wane”.

Cele could find no real response.

He also couldn’t explain why he did not scrutinise the R1,68 billion leases the same way he had when he refused to sign a R3 billion deal to build new police headquarters.

He suffered another glancing blow when he admitted that he should have paid more attention to the lease documents – and yet another when he acknowledged he had approved funding without consulting the SAPS chief financial officer to ensure money was available.

Unimpressed, Moloi repeatedly interrupted state advocate Viwe Notshe’s cross-examination of Cele, grilling the commissioner about why he ignored the concerns of department of public works and police officials.

On three occasions during Cele’s testimony, Moloi warned the commissioner not to be “evasive and argumentative”, saying this would leave a “terrible impression” on the board.

Moloi wanted to know why Cele ignored warnings from KwaZulu-Natal public works’ chief director Irene Nel and provincial brigadier Alpheus Ngema about “discrepancies” and “improprieties” in the procurement process followed by the police and public works to negotiate directly with Shabangu for the Transnet building.

Despite these red flags, Cele and senior public works officials went ahead with the deal and allegedly relieved Nel of her oversight responsibility for police accommodation.

Ngema told the inquiry he suspected the Transnet contract was “crafted to fit the Transnet building” even though the lease was meant to go out to tender.

But it wasn’t all bad news for Cele.

None of the witnesses, including Hlela, who accused Cele of improperly selecting the Middestad building, would say whether Cele was corrupt or acted in a corrupt manner. Witnesses could not prove whether Cele knew Shabangu or had specifically chosen one of the businessman’s buildings as a potential police HQ.

Only Hlela claimed that Cele identified the building and instructed him to procure a lease for it, but Cele dismissed Hlela’s claim.

Other major players in the saga, like suspended public works director-general Siviwe Dongwana and suspended acting director-general Sam Vukela, who both approved the leases for Shabangu, have not submitted their statements and cannot be located to testify, according to Notshe.

Dongwana and Vukela are also the main witnesses in the department’s case in the North Gauteng High Court to have the Middestad lease nullified.

Cele will be re-examined by Maleka when the hearing resumes tomorrow at the Tshwane Council chambers in Munitoria, Pretoria.

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