FIRST TAKE | Hawks, NPA should be praised for VBS arrests. Now comes their biggest challenge

Shamila Batohi.
Shamila Batohi.

Many South Africans can be forgiven for mentally separating the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) under President Cyril Ramaphosa from the prosecutions body that existed under former president Jacob Zuma.

Similarly, there is a tendency to think of the police and in particular the corruption-busting Hawks along the same lines - a new broom has come, made new appointments and therefore it follows that all has been swept clean.

But in reality, the organisations are an overlapping morass of confusion over who remains loyal to justice and country, and those loyal to politics and the pocket.

The NPA and Hawks became shadows of what they were meant to be in the Zuma years of state capture. As the oft-repeated mantra goes, prosecutions and investigations are supposed to be undertaken without fear or favour.

That was not the reality in those dark years, where justice was applied in cases of government corruption only in extreme cases and if and when it was politically expedient.

The arrest of the masterminds of the R2 billion looting of VBS Mutual Bank should earn the NPA and the Hawks praise, albeit two years after advocate Terry Motau's report laid bare the thieving and scheming.

But now advocate Shamila Batohi and Lieutenant-General Godfrey Lebeya's biggest challenge looms.

The country, and indeed the prosecutors and investigators, will not be satisfied with the arrest and prosecution of the "insiders" - the men who were part of the VBS' management and board - whose complicity has long been proven and known.

They are what one might refer to as "low hanging fruit".

READ | VBS gang goes down - here's everything you need to know

No, the challenge will lay in proving with finality the NPA and the Hawks act independently from the prevailing political winds.

Batohi and Lebeya can, and must, pursue charges against the raft of politicians from the ANC and EFF who have allegedly benefitted from the looting of VBS.

That includes Zuma, who was handed a R8 million bond to pay a portion of the taxpayer funds spent on upgrading his Nkandla homestead by VBS - six months before he signed over the title deed as security on the bond.

And it includes Danny Msiza, the Limpopo ANC treasurer-general who, evidence has shown, allegedly pushed and pulled behind the scenes to convince his comrades to ensure their municipalities invested in VBS, a role for which he was handsomely rewarded.

It also includes the two leaders of the EFF, Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, who allegedly benefitted from VBS funds that flowed to Shivambu's brother, Brian.

How the funds reached Malema and Shivambu has been exposed in devastating detail by investigative journalism unit Scorpio of the Daily Maverick.

Therein lies the rub.

Batohi and Lebeya will be pushed and pulled in two directions - factions within the ANC who wish to protect their comrades and think they have a say over the decisions of the police and prosecutors as they used to.

They will also likely face a public onslaught of dirty tricks and foul words by the EFF which has a long-standing record of using its considerable platform to vilify its opponents.

If the attacks in public and private do not focus on Batohi and Lebeya, it will focus on their political principles - Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Police Minister Bheki Cele.

READ | VBS arrests part of an 'ongoing investigation', says Hawks boss

In turn, Ramaphosa will at the very least be accused of using the NPA to conduct a politically motivated witch-hunt of his loudest opponents.

With the next local government elections around the corner, the EFF will likely seek to use the supposed political targeting as a campaign tool.

And if the ANC government does not act on the corruption of its own and other politicians, it will struggle to defend its record - and the DA will use the stick to beat them with.

On the whole, South Africa does not have a good record when it comes to prosecuting politically connected crimes of corruption.

The few cases pursued seem to minimise the gaping chasm of accountability created by the avalanche of government corruption that needs to be pursued and prosecuted.

By all accounts, the corruption is so widespread that new prisons may have to be built to accommodate the politicians and their associates who are found guilty.

But perhaps the ANC should consider this moment as its opportunity to come clean, and scrub the halls of Luthuli House clean.

A party that campaigns on an anti-corruption ticket with several convictions on its governance record could rejuvenate its declining majority.

The only question is whether Batohi and Lebeya have the stomach to face the trials of politically sensitive prosecutions.

And whether Ramaphosa has the stomach to defend them from even his own party.

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