Over the past fortnight, it has seemed as though the pendulum within the criminal justice system has begun to swing back.
The damage wrought over the past half a decade through a deliberate and malicious campaign to eviscerate state law enforcement agencies left the police service (SAPS), Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks), National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), South African Revenue Service (SARS), Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and the State Security Agency (SSA) depleted and crippled as they battled to tackle organised and complex commercial crimes.
More than that, political agendas and infighting resulted in good, capable civil servants fighting for their careers, reputations and bank balances. The battlefield in most of these instances was the country's courts as protracted litigation cost individuals small fortunes and left them disillusioned and deflated.
But over the last couple of weeks, two particular cases have drawn to some degree of finality. On Monday, the state provisionally withdrew charges against former Hawks head Anwa Dramat and former Gauteng Hawks boss Shadrack Sibiya in the North Gauteng High Court.
Dramat and Sibiya were facing charges of organised crime, kidnapping, violations of the Immigration Act and obstruction of justice, following the supposed extradition of five Zimbabweans wanted by police in that country. Initially, the charges led to the suspension of Dramat and Sibiya, as well as IPID head Robert McBride.
While McBride fought in court to return to his post, the two Hawks men left their jobs while the criminal cases dragged on for years. Meanwhile, in KwaZulu-Natal, the so-called "Cato Manor Death Squad" and former Hawks general Johan Booysen were also applying for the case against them to be struck off the roll. That matter has also been dragging on for years based ostensibly on a false narrative.
Then, last week, lawyers for SARS and its suspended commissioner Tom Moyane withdrew civil proceedings against former revenue service spokesperson Adrian Lackay. He had been served with a combined summons in 2015, claiming R12m in damages from him for defamation. This stemmed from comments he made to Parliament around the so-called "rogue unit" narrative that, much like the Zim renditions story, turned out to be a carefully orchestrated smear campaign to push out mostly good, capable civil servants who stood in the way of looting and corruption.
The Lackay decision came in the wake of retired judge Frans Kroon, the former head of a SARS advisory board, admitting to the Nugent commission that they were wrong to say the "rogue unit" was unlawful. Kroon acknowledged that the findings were not "thought through properly and in fact, were incorrect".
Over at the NPA offices in Silverton, acting National Director of Public Prosecutions Silas Ramaite is keeping the seat warm for a new head of the prosecuting authority who is expected to be announced in the next month. Change is inevitable. And at the SAPS, there is finally stability in the leadership ranks with the head of the Hawks, Godfrey Lebeya, and head of Crime Intelligence Peter Jacobs quietly going about rebuilding their respective institutions.
Good guys fighting back
What all of this means is that, on the face of it, the "good guys" appear to be fighting back. They are reclaiming their own reputations and clearing their names but more importantly the various organisations that were hollowed out are starting to be rehabilitated.
The problem though is that it is going to take time and patience for capacity to be restored. It is also going to take political and public will, as well as a change in mindset. The drain from state institutions to the private sector has been severe. Many extremely qualified and competent civil servants are no longer within the state and are instead working for audit firms and security companies.
I recently spoke at the Institute of Commercial Forensic Practitioners' annual conference in Midrand about this exact topic and as I looked around the room, I recognised many senior cops and prosecutors who had left the SAPS and NPA to start their own commercial practices or have taken jobs as forensic investigators in the private sector. It was depressing.
I'm told that some investigators who were at SARS are being approached in an attempt to lure them back into the fold – an absolutely imperative move if they hope to bring down organised criminals again.
We need to find a way to lure them back, to return the invaluable institutional memory to these organisations. The doors have to be opened to allow them to return and they have to want to do so.
There also needs to be a shift amongst younger, aspirational professionals to get them to start their careers working for the state in order to rebuild from the ground up. This means that if you are studying for a LLB degree, you should want to be a state prosecutor rather than going to do your articles at a fancy Sandton law firm.
It needs to be as prestigious to be an Attorney General in South Africa as it can be in the United States.
Similarly, if you are becoming an actuary or a chartered accountant, consider going to work for SARS or the Hawks or the Public Protector rather than getting a job with an audit firm or starting your own business. Chances are you could get thrown onto a big case like the Steinhoff investigation where they are desperate for people with these qualifications.
The pendulum swinging back over the past few weeks should serve as a signal to the country that the time has come for those with the capabilities to step up and ensure that the criminal justice system is reconstructed so that it can perform its core function of maintaining law and order.
- Wiener is an investigative reporter for News24.
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