Newsmaker – Vas Soni: My wife must come first

2015-02-02 08:00

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When it came to choosing between being a corruption buster or a husband, Vas Soni knew what he needed to do.

Soni, who this week quit as the head of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), met his wife Anitha in 1987 and they married in 1990.

For the past 10 weeks, she has been in ICU, battling an illness whose nature he politely prefers not to reveal.

She fell ill in September and, since then, Soni has been taking time off work to care for her. He insists that those close to him, including some SIU staff, were aware of his wife’s illness.

“It’s very difficult for me to have any quality time with my wife, so I can’t fulfil my responsibilities to her as a husband and my responsibilities to the public as the SIU head. I had to make a decision about which one I should continue fulfilling,” says the man who hails from Overport, Durban, who became the SIU boss in late 2013.

But the Bryanston resident knew his resignation would spark speculation – and it did.

After all, the SIU has some high-profile work on its plate, including an investigation into security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s home at Nkandla.

He insists pundits and opposition parties who believe he was pushed or pressured to quit do so “wrongly”. His resignation is all about Anitha and, though he knows he’s done the right thing, he regrets not having had more time at the SIU.

“When I took the job, I was aware we would be investigating people who occupy positions of power,” Soni says.

“I had a reasonable private law practice. I wouldn’t have taken this job to not fulfil the functions of the job. I am deeply conscious of the fact that a society in which maladministration and corruption are rife is a society whose democracy is in serious danger. I’d like to think that the role we play protects our democracy.”

Why is corruption so rife in South Africa?

“The only reason people commit corruption and maladministration is because they believe they won’t get caught. That is what this job has taught me,” he says, emphasising his words with long-fingered, constantly busy hands.

“You have a tender; if you’re in the supply-chain management section of a department and there are opportunities to benefit people you know, you’re going to use those opportunities. What we’ve got to do as law enforcement agencies is ensure that if you take those advantages, you are going to get caught and you know you’re going to get caught.

“The idea is to catch a couple of people, put them in jail, take back their benefits a sufficient number of times and eventually the climate will change and the corrupt will know they will get caught.”

He wanted to build up more civil claim cases for government over the next three years – enough to convince Zuma to establish a special tribunal to litigate on civil claims like the R155?million the state wants from Nkandla architect Minenhle Makhanya.

He denies that he or any of his staff were under any pressure during or after the Nkandla investigation, as suggested by some.

“I can understand there’s an unease given the fact that there are these happenings at the SA Revenue Service (Sars), the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

“One of the issues raised was that, because we’ve investigated Nkandla, there would have been pressure on me. As a fact, there was no pressure at all put on me and nobody from my staff who was involved in the Nkandla investigation or any other member said ‘these are the pressures that have been brought on us’. I say that as a fact.”

It was Soni and his team who oversaw the investigation that has led to 15 current and former public works officials facing civil claims or disciplinary hearings.

When he refers to Sars, the Hawks and the NPA, Soni is of course talking about high-profile suspensions, resignations and allegations against his counterparts in these agencies.

“But I didn’t see a connection with the [Anwa] Dramat and Sars matters, although people have drawn a sort of link with that as well,” he says.

“When Mr Dramat was suspended, I was working out what I should do in respect of my position at the SIU; I expected that people would make that connection. At the end of the day, I couldn’t base my decision and the timing of my decision on what people would speculate, because speculation would be there.”

He has some parting advice for Zuma: make a permanent appointment soon, because placing someone in an acting position will lead to “uncertainty” among the SIU’s staff. Though he says the unit has plenty of experienced people, he thinks Zuma should consider looking outside the organisation for his successor.

“If it were up to me, I would choose somebody from the private sector. I say that because I think the fight against corruption and maladministration requires a creativity I think would be absent in somebody who has been in the public service for a long time.”

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