Heath quits — again

2011-12-16 00:00

FORMER judge Willem Heath is without a job in the public service — again.

Yesterday he quit as head of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), over his comments to the City Press newspaper about former president Thabo Mbeki.

He had been a mere two weeks in the job after serving as Justice Minister Jeff Radebe’s special adviser for two years, a job widely viewed as a meal ticket for the role he played in the fight against clearing Jacob Zuma of corruption charges.

Before that he had been out in the cold as the head of his own forensic company, having quit as a judge after Mbeki refused his request for a discharge. Heath reportedly said this decisions had left him a “pauper for life”.

That resignation came after the Constitutional Court ruled in 2001 that he could not head the SIU as a sitting judge — a post he had been appointed to by then president Nelson Mandela.

Heath was also deliberately excluded by Mbeki from a multi-agency probe into the arms deal at the time and there was no love lost between the two men.

His leadership of the unit came under fire in Parliament, with an auditing team of the National Prosecuting Authority highlighting his weak management of the unit in a report to the justice committee in February 2001.

Among the criticisms was that the unit’s effectiveness was compromised because it asked for presidential proclamations for less serious cases and accepted more work than it could handle.

But a decade later Heath bounced back. He was appointed as head of the SIU by Zuma to succeed Willie Hofmeyr, who was holding down two jobs, including that of Asset Forfeiture Unit head.

Days into his new job Heath in an interview repeated the claim he had previously made in public: that Mbeki was behind the corruption charges against Zuma. This time he also alleged Mbeki was behind the rape charge, of which Zuma was eventually acquitted.

A furious Mbeki, through his foundation, rejected the claims as defamatory and malicious and asked the presidency for evidence of the allegations levelled against him.

Bulelani Ngcuka, who was the head of the NPA at the time, and whom Heath accused of also interfering in prosecutions, wrote an open letter.

The presidency distanced itself from Heath’s comments and launched an investigation.

Last night Ngcuka welcomed Heath’s resignation, saying that it was in the best interests of the country and the SIU.

Mbeki’s spokesperson, Mukoni Ratshitanga, declined to comment on Heath’s resignation.

Asked how Mbeki planned to clear his name, Ratshitanga would only say: “The Thabo Mbeki Foundation will seek legal advice as to an appropriate course of action.”

Announcing Heath’s resignation, Radebe said it had become very clear that Heath’s comments had created a perception, rightly or wrongly, that he could not be independent in terms of helping the Special Investigating Unit.”

Heath tendered his resignation on Wednesday and Zuma accepted it yesterday, said Radebe

Heath did not answer his cellphone last night, while Justice Ministry spokesperson Tlali Tlali ignored queries about whether the former judge would return to his post as Radebe’s special adviser.

The presidency, meanwhile, has appointed the deputy NPA boss, advocate Nomgcoba Jiba, as acting SIU head. This temporary appointment is also controversial given Jiba’s past history, including a suspension in 2008.

This after claims that she was part of an alleged conspiracy to arrest former Gauteng Scorpions boss Gerrie Nel, who was poised to lay corruption charges against ex-police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

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