In February last year, I sat down with former Sunday Times journalist Stephan Hofstatter in a Johannesburg coffee shop after he had told a mutual friend that he wanted to see me.
I assumed Hofstatter wanted to explain his role in the SARS rogue unit stories to me as I had long been a fierce critic of the work of the Sunday Times investigations unit. But why to me? I didn't know him at all.
He arrived with his hand in plaster and looked pale and exhausted. I asked him why he wanted to see me. He paused a while, took a sip of his drink and launched into me.
How could you have liked that post, he wanted to know? What post? What did I like? That Facebook post from Paul Kirk about Cato Manor, he responded. You liked it, he snarled! Why?
Kirk is a KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) journalist who had a field day with the blunders and mistakes that Hofstatter and his colleagues had made in attempting to label the Cato Manor organised crime unit a death squad and KZN Hawks commander Major-General Johan Booysen a modern-day Eugene de Kock.
I was thunderstruck by Hofstatter's arrogance because by then it was already clear that the Cato Manor stories were contrived by police crime intelligence to dispose of Booysen. He was hot on the heels of a Jacob Zuma crony by the name of Toshan Panday.
In doing the story, Hofstatter and his colleagues, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Rob Rose, colluded with Panday and other suspects to falsely and maliciously implicate Booysen in murder.
Our meeting took place several months after the Sunday Times had officially retracted their SARS rogue unit stories that were written by Hofstatter, Wa Afrika and Piet Rampedi.
I had known from the outset that the newspaper's stories were part of a plot that was engineered in the dirty tricks chambers of the State Security Agency (SSA) to get rid of the top executive of SARS.
The revenue collector was investigating the tax affairs of Zuma, his gangster cronies, his family and the Guptas and therefore had to be stopped.
Dubious and compromised "sources" dished lies and fabrications to the Sunday Times investigations unit that they regurgitated in the newspaper without performing the most basic of journalistic requirements.
They were also implicated in reprehensible reporting when in October 2011 a headline in the paper bawled: "Sent to die".
Those three words encapsulated the gory details of what was to follow: Hawks commander Lieutenant-General Anwa Dramat and Gauteng Hawks head Major-General Shadrack Sibiya had conducted illegal "renditions" in cahoots with their Zimbabwean counterparts.
Reporting that ended careers
The story behind the story was that Zuma's keepers wanted to get rid of Dramat and Sibiya because they had ordered a murder, kidnapping, assault, fraud and corruption investigation into crime intelligence head Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli.
Although Mdluli and his cronies were looting the secret fund, he was a self-confessed Zuma ally and had vowed to help to keep the president in power. He wrote a letter to Zuma and claimed that Dramat and Sibiya were conspiring against him.
A subsequent affidavit made by Hawks Colonel Kobus Roelofse – one of the Mdluli investigators – said that a crime intelligence official told him that he overheard how Mdluli's cronies discussed the placement of a newspaper article relating to Dramat and Sibiya.
It was as though Hofstatter lived on another planet and had no grasp that their reporting had greatly contributed in ending the careers of some of South Africa's most experienced, skilled and dedicated civil servants.
He admitted that the unit made mistakes with their SARS rogue unit reporting but was adamant that they got most things right. He said he stood by every word that they had written about Cato Manor, Booysen, Dramat and Sibiya.
One of the sorriest sagas in South African newspaper and journalism history came to a head on Sunday when Sunday Times editor Bongani Siqoko admitted that there was no Cato Manor "death squad" and that Booysen, Dramat and Sibiya were wronged.
He added their names to those he has already apologised to: former SARS executives Ivan Pillay, Johann van Loggerenberg and Peter Richer. They are by no means the only ones who were affected by the reporting of the investigation unit.
State capture brought out best and worst in people
People like Pillay and Van Loggerenberg had contributed immensely in turning SARS into a world-class institution while Dramat and Sibiya would have been at the forefront of impeding state capture had they been allowed to fulfil their duties.
State capture has brought the best and the worst out of my countrymen and women. The keepers and the capturers had their "enablers" – officials, lawyers, accountants, auditors and journalists who helped them to malevolently seize control of state institutions that ultimately led to the plunder of our fiscus.
Hofstatter, Wa Afrika and their colleagues contributed greatly to the decimation of the Hawks and SARS and bringing South Africa to the precipice of becoming a gangster state. That is a legacy they will carry forever.
None of them seemed to realise the damage they had done. Hofstatter thought that the 2016 Sunday Times apology had pardoned him and recently defiantly launched a book – on state capture, nogal!
His launch was nuked when Richer stood up and reminded him that his lies had wrecked lives and caused mayhem. The publisher cancelled further engagements.
Rampedi started a newspaper called the African Times and has ever since raved like a wounded animal about "white racist monopoly capital".
The fact that then communications minister Faith Muthambi – a mampara of prodigious proportions and a Zuma acolyte – congratulated Rampedi on the launch of the paper, says everything. Not long after the first edition, the press ombudsman ordered Rampedi to apologise to Pillay about yet another invented tirade.
Rampedi still defends the hogwash he gurgled and threatened to sue me after the publication of The President's Keepers. So did Malcolm Rees, co-author of Sunday Times's first rogue unit exposé, who alleged that Van Loggerenberg was an apartheid spy – without a shred of evidence.
Others, like Wa Afrika, stayed on at the Sunday Times or within the Tiso Blackstar group.
Wa Afrika, who was in 2004 fired by the Sunday Times for unethical behaviour but inexplicably rehired, has reportedly continued to challenge the rogue unit apology.
They are now all gone, except for Rose, who is currently the editor of Financial Mail and a highly respected journalist.
I know Rose and it is difficult to associate him with the lamentable journalism that the unit performed. But he shared in the fame and glory and the hundreds of thousands of rand in prize money that the unit received for the Cato Manor death squad stories.
When the Sunday Times published the rogue unit stories, Rose was business editor at the paper and I was told that he stood up against then editor Phylicia Oppelt about the credibility of their sources. That was apparently why he left for the Financial Mail.
At the magazine, he was instrumental in highlighting Tom Moyane's disastrous rule at SARS.
Rose has some explaining to do and so does the two editors under whose care the reporting took place: Oppelt and Ray Hartley, who has edited the Sunday Times with some distinction.
Rose is about to launch a book – an exposé of the Steinhoff debacle. I had read the book while still in manuscript form and it is truly brilliant. I will advise him to explain his role in the unit before his book hits the shelves.
Remembering the heroes
It is important to realise that while there were villains, there were also heroes. I'm thinking of a senior journalist like Pearlie Joubert who resigned in protest from the Sunday Times investigations unit and gave up her journalism career because of what her colleagues were writing.
I'm thinking of the scores of journalists across the country who relentlessly tracked the nefarious shenanigans of Zuma and his cronies and ultimately exposed him as a corrupt and kept kleptocrat.
I salute Siqoko for his brave and honest attempt to restore the credibility of the Sunday Times. He was the editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London at the time and had no part in any of the reporting of the investigations unit. He only took control of the Sunday Times at the end of 2015 and had to address the wrongs that happened under his predecessors' watch.
South Africa needs a healthy and vibrant Sunday Times. It is the biggest Sunday newspaper in the country and has a vital role to play in a democratic South Africa.
That is why Siqoko's apology can only be the beginning of a journalistic healing process. We need to know about and expose the hidden hand that played Hofstatter and his colleagues.
This was not just sloppy reporting or journalists that got it wrong. This was manufactured journalism that was meant to disinform and to ultimately damage our law-enforcement agencies.
This was journalism that had a higher purpose: to keep Jacob Zuma in power and weaken and ultimately eliminate his enemies.
Were any of the Sunday Times journalists paid by crime intelligence or the SSA? Were they agents?
I don't know if any of Hofstatter, Wa Afrika or Rampedi would have the guts or conscience to tell it all. Maybe Rose, Hartley or Oppelt can shed more light on what drove the process.
I have suggested that they approach the Zondo and Nugent commissions with their evidence. It is a rare thing for a journalist to appear before a commission of inquiry, but this was extraordinary reporting during extraordinary times.
Wits journalism professor Anton Harber says this will make journalists nervous. He has suggested a news media industry inquiry in which there was acknowledgement that we have an industry-wide problem of trust and credibility arising out of the state capture period.
The Sunday Times is not the only publication that furthered the aims of the capturers and the looters and in the end Hofstatter and the others were just puppets in a much bigger game.
It is the puppet masters we need to expose and then make sure it never happens in a newsroom again.