….the Nazis came for the Communists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I was Protestant so I did not speak up. Then they came for me…By that time there was no one to speak up for anyone. (Pastor Martin Niemoller)
The threatened suspension of the SAPS National Commissioner, tellingly driven by Minister Cele, provides a useful smokescreen for the sinister and serious abuses of power by the Minister of Police. His unconstitutional interference in operational policing matters, especially his heading of a ministerial team investigating political violence, poses a serious threat to the lives of innocent people, including whistleblowers.
Events surrounding the recent arrest of whistle-blower Thabiso Zulu illustrate the tactics currently being employed. At an A NC election-related meeting in Copesville, Pietermaritzburg in September, a popular candidate choice was stabbed, allegedly by supporters of the current incumbent (who is on trial for fraud) and in the presence of police from Mountain Rise SAPS. Thabiso Zulu, who had stopped briefly to drop refreshments for old folk, was assaulted when he left, and opened a case. Subsequently, a case of assault was opened against Zulu by a supporter of the councilor. Because this station is implicated in police criminal actions in abusing Zulu and a pregnant neighbour in July 2020, the transfer of the dockets was requested . However, instead of their being given to provincial detectives, they were handed to the political killings task team, whose mandate does not include assault cases.
On the afternoon of 10 October, members of the task team arrested Zulu for the assault case opened against him and took him to Loop Street police station in Pietermaritzburg. Being a Sunday afternoon, it took several hours to locate his lawyer. Under threat, including that bail would be denied, Zulu was coerced to retrieve his two cellphones from his home and to activate them. The police took them away from him without his permission, telling him that they were going to download the contents. They did not leave their contact details at the police station.
These investigators report to General Khumalo, who has never been a detective, and was formerly a Brigadier in Operational Response Services, prior to which he was apparently, pre-1994, a member of the KwaZulu Police He reports directly to the minister, not the national commissioner, which is grossly irregular in terms of the South African Police Services Act.. The arresting officer reputedly has a close relationship with the minister. The illegal removal of the cellphones, which had no bearing on an assault case, was a breach of legislation governing interception and monitoring, which requires judicial authorization and, for the police, written authorization by the national commissioner. When contacted, General Khumalo offered no explanation. He was advised that his members were operating outside of their mandate, and he was asked to ensure the phones were immediately returned to the police station for safekeeping. The intervention of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Commissioner SAPS was also sought (unsuccessfully). Following information give by the arresting officer n to his lawyer, Zulu spent the afternoon after his release on bail on 11th searching for the phones at Loop Street SAPS, the station at which he had been detained, and at another Pietermaritzburg station a distance away from the city centre (Plessislaer) but neither station had them. They were returned to the Loop Street station only on Wednesday 13 October. One was damaged, apparently beyond repair. This sinister task team is operating outside of the law, with impunity.
There seems little doubt that Zulu’s arrest, on a Sunday afternoon, was merely a pretext for accessing his cellphones and downloading their contents. This places anyone who has contacted Zulu, especially those providing information about corruption, including among senior politicians and police members, at great risk. The procurement of these phones was probably at the request of the Minister of Police, to whom this team reports directly and with whom the arresting officer is alleged to have a close relationship. This direct reporting is grossly irregular, since his own political colleagues may be among the suspects in cases this team investigates. Unsurprisingly this team has been conspicuously unsuccessful in obtaining convictions in dozens of political killings in recent years; nor has it made any arrests for the attempted murder of Thabiso Zulu two years ago. In the October 2019 case, when Zulu narrowly missed being killed, this team is alleged to have intimidated witnesses, and to have refused to transcribe an incriminating taped recording of the plot to kill Zulu, implicating politicans and police.
This is not the only operational matter in which the minister is directly involved, and line management is by-passed. Recent media reports refer to a leaked intelligence document about Crime Intelligence in KZN running taxpayer-funded political hit squads – as did the apartheid government thirty years ago. These reports referred to the then head of CIS, General Jacobs, giving the intelligence report to the minister – instead of to his line manager, the national commissioner. They alleged that the minister had opposed an investigation into the apartheid era operatives implicated, since it would embarrass the police.
Already accused of failing to act against hit squads, the minister is now accused of allowing – and possibly ordering – the illegal interception of cellphones and the downloading of their contents. Having failed to protect whistleblower Zulu, he now, through his team’s illicit activities, has access to a large amount of material on political and police corruption on Zulu’s phones, endangering the lives of all of those who, trusting Zulu, have passed on incriminating information for him to follow up. The parallels between Cele’s handling of policing and his apartheid predecessors is striking. This illegal interception of Thabiso Zulu’s phone may well be a sign of things to come, further endangering the lives of anyone who wants to do the right thing and report corruption and crime to someone they trust.
That such sinister, illegal, activities continue points to the failure of parliament, and their oversight committees, to hold ministers to account. They are now being urged to, immediately, summons Minister Cele and his team to account for their irregular and illegal activities. The assistance of the Inspector-General of Intelligence is also being solicited. If these activities are allowed to continue, no one who wants to do the right thing is safe.