Eighteen months after being appointed as head of the Directorate Priority Crimes Investigation (DPCI) unit aka the Hawks, Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya has acknowledged the honeymoon is over.
Lebeya knows expectations are high from the public for prosecutions and convictions, and says that he too is impatient for action.
"Even myself, I feel it is over. I am impatient within me. I would have loved to have moved quicker than the pace that I am moving at. That is real and this is what I emphasise daily, impressing on my members that we need to be moving quicker than the way we have been moving. But I understand the nature of the investigation that we have been doing and what are those challenges that you come across that sometimes you need to cross that bridge."
The 58-year-old former deputy national police commissioner, career cop, admitted advocate and PhD graduate gave News24 an exclusive interview from his Silverton office last week.
His office is situated in a modest house at the Hawks headquarters at the Promat Building, which neighbours the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
The Hawks have been badly crippled by staff shortages and competency challenges, operating at 50% capacity. Many have left through promotions and transfers. There are currently 1 700 investigators in the unit, working on almost 19 000 cases. They have recently referred more than 1 800 cases to the NPA for decisions. Around 10 senior members have also been allocated to the NPA's investigating directorate, focusing on priority state capture cases.
Lebeya says a new structure for the unit was approved in October and the process of recruiting more staff is under way.
"The status of the Hawks, some people would have thought that it is in the ICU. It is not. We have moved out of the ICU. We are in a process where we are reconstructing, we are re-engineering the Hawks. We are almost at 50% of what we are supposed to be. You see, we are alive, so we believe that in a few months' time we should have passed this 50% rate. We are continuously recruiting."
Among those being recruited are specialist forensic auditors to address an urgent requirement to deal with complex commercial crimes like the investigation into Steinhof and VBS.
Lebeya says despite the shortages, investigators are working as hard as possible and arrests are being made.
"We have been arresting people and we continue to arrest. [Year-on-year] we have improved, so obviously the most of the arrests we are not getting the media coverage that they are supposed to be getting so at times you might not be seeing as much of these successes as one would expect to see."
He disagrees that the lack of media coverage is because the Hawks are not arresting kingpins, but rather taking the lower ranking "runners" into custody. He suggests it is a combination of players in the organised crime hierarchy who are being arrested.
Lebeya is an expert in organised crime, having written his doctoral thesis on "Understanding Organised Crime" and speaks on the topic with intense technicality.
Lack of space
In addition to staff constraints, the DPCI is also restricted by a lack of space.
Lebeya laments the unimpressive headquarters where his office is situated, which resembles a school campus. Staff are also spread out in various buildings across the city and he has requested a new site from the Department of Public Works.
"The space is something that I think we are struggling with. I think you should have seen other headquarters. They are not the same. I'm not sure if you have walked past the headquarters of our neighbour here the NPA, the neighbours of the SIU, you can say other headquarters of other environments, this one I think that this is a building that we have inherited from the DSO [Scorpions]. It looks like schools," he laughs. "Unfortunately, the accommodation is not an ideal one because we can't all be accommodated in one building."
When Lebeya was appointed in May 2018, he inherited a deeply fractured and captured organisation that had been compromised by the leadership of General Mthandazo "Berning" Ntlemeza. When he was appointed in 2015, Ntlemeza appointed new provincial heads of the DPCI throughout the country and it is believed that Lebeya has faced a struggle in replacing many of these. Lebeya dismisses suggestions that these Ntlemeza appointees are part of a fight back campaign against him.
"I don't know if there is anyone who will act against me because they have got a job to do. And I'm overseeing the job that they are doing, so it can't be against me. If there are such, nobody has ever come open[ly to say] that I'm defying or that I'm practicing against what you preach. I don't know if in some people's hearts they may think that. But I sit with them and we discuss and we make decisions. You see in this organisation, you have the process of grievance so those that have got a problem can register a grievance," says Lebeya.
With anticipation building from an impatient public for action on state capture cases, he acknowledges that people want to see prosecutions. He hints that the police may feel their cases are court ready but prosecutors have to close every loophole before taking it to court.
"We have got cases that I think all of us, especially when you ask a police person, the police will always say no, we must move on this one. At times, we might be wanting to move too quick, whereas the one that is going to present this case in court may say, I want to close that loophole.
"It doesn't help to rush and thereafter have the matter withdrawn because something else has not been done. So we expect [it]. I think it is an area that you should have heard us, there is a number [of cases] that I've mentioned that [are] waiting for a decision [on prosecution]. So if you were to ask a police person, they would say 'No I'm ready with this one, I'm waiting for [a] decision', but the prosecution will obviously interrogate it and say we are not ready here."
However, he does not want to point the finger at his colleagues in the NPA and blame them for slowing down the process.
"No, I'm not going to throw a snake at our colleague and say that we are frustrated at the NPA. We are working as a team, in this arrangement where the two are working together, the other one will always want to push quicker whereas the other one wants to be checking. Have we checked all the loopholes that I may experience when I'm sitting in court?"
Lebeya is urging patience and wants the public to know that cases have been prioritised to get them to court as soon as possible.
"They are working as hard as they can, but we can do better. So if we have got the resources that are required, we can move quicker than what we are doing. As an example, you see that under normal circumstances, matters like the VBS case would have needed an investigator to carry that one.
"You can expect those things to go seven, eight years under investigation. Now, in order to cut that time, you put more bodies in that investigation. So you put 10 investigators in this so that they can move quicker and cut time that is normally required of an investigation.
"So you invest much in one matter. Then the others obviously get a little bit delayed. Because if you want to deal with all these matters simultaneously, you end up delaying. So that's why there is this prioritisation."
"The Hawks is re-engineering itself. We are aware of what is expected of us. We are aware of what it is we need to do to deliver this expected service. It is only a matter of time and resources that we can move speedily. They must just understand that certain matters will take a little bit of time, but we are cutting on that because we know that we can't wait too long.
"People need the results, but in doing that we are cautious not to be making mistakes that at the end of the day we go to court and then the matter is withdrawn. It's even worse if you have not taken this matter to court because then you are on the backfoot."