Security Watch

Criminal attack on South Africa’s democracy from within

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.jpg

The sensational break-in at the Office of the Chief Justice confirms that greatest danger to democracy in South Africa probably comes from within the state itself.

News of the break-in last weekend into the Office of the Chief Justice(OCJ), the administrative hub for the South African judiciary, was met with anger and disbelief by the South African public, political parties, trade unions, NGO’s, and serious concern by the public at large.

The mood is eloquently summed up by Stephen Grootes in the Daily Maverick: ”To rob the office of a Chief Justice is not to commit a simple criminal act. It is to commit an atrocity against our democracy”.

Highly suspicious pattern

The motives behind the break-in look highly suspicious and was clearly a well-planned operation.

It is telling that thieves were apparently not afer material valuables, but rather for very specific information, knew exactly where it was and ignored other valuable equipment. The stolen fifteen computers were on the first floor of the building and the burglars ignored all the computers of the IT-, finance-, training- and communications departments on the ground floor.

The fifteen stolen, however, contain sensitive information, including personal information of the country’s 250 judges, judiciary staff and the country’s courts.

The break-in just carries too much similarities with other high profile break-ins in the recent past to be swiped aside as a random burglary.

It resembles the pattern of the burglary at the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) a year ago, when the burglars also knew exactly what they were looking for and where it was kept. Also then nothing else of value was stolen.  

It is the general perception that the motive of the break-in was to relay a message – one of intimidation.

Some commentators that the OCJ that it was no coincidence that the OCJ break-in took place only a day after the Constitutional Court delivered a scathing judgment highly critical of the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, and the social grants crisis she created.

Although not directly related, the High Court in Pretoria on the same day ruled that Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza's appointment was unlawful and invalid.

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Added credibility

The interpretation that intimidation seems to be the motive gained more credibility when, only days later, the former Director General of the Social Development department, Zane Dangor, experienced  a suspicious “burglary” at his home.

While Dangor’s family and domestic worker was traumatised by the incident after the perpetrators tried to gain entrance under false pretences and when unsuccessful, turned violent, nothing was taken.

Dangor, who earlier resigned over the grants crisis, described the “burglary” as an “act of intimidation.”

Who benefits?

The break-in into the OCJ raises two all-important questions – who is to benefit and who has the means and the opportunity to do it?

Considering the popular outrage and speculation about possible motives for the break-in the Department of Justice through the deputy minister appealed to the public not to speculate. The acting commissioner of police did the same.

 The appeals were, however, largely ignored. The South African public has become highly suspicious off and distrustful of the Zuma administration, particularly those close him.

Runaway corruption and state capture in so many forms has led to the popular assumption that ” the hidden hand”  of the discredited president and his cohorts is behind very suspicious action involving the government.

Regarding the OCJ break–in, Stephen Grootes concluded: ”It is hard to avoid pointing the finger of suspicion at people in high office. Perhaps, probably even, the highest office;” and:” ... then we have the person who, nominally perhaps, controls the kind of people who could carry out an act like this. State Security Minister David Mahlobo”.

Many South Africans would agree.

Earlier this month minister Mahlobo claimed that the judiciary was being used by “foreign forces” to bring about regime change in South Africa. He also claimed that South Africa is “under siege” from people who “abuse the judiciary”.

Suspicion remains

The announcement by the acting commissioner of police that three suspects, described as petty criminals, were arrested in connection with the OCJ, did little to ease suspicion and speculation.

In fact, developments since the announcement have only deepened the suspicion and scepticism. 

Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies believes the police might have acted with undue haste due to huge public and political pressure for results. Sean Tait of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum agrees and said the police: "Often arrest first and then investigate.  This is what it looks like in this case. It's the only logical reason for the inconsistency in the announcement of the major breakthrough and the fact that the accused are not charged with the burglary."

With their first court appearance one of the three suspects was released and the charge sheets for the other two contained no mention of the break-in – being accused of being in possession of unlicensed firearms, fake IDs and a getaway vehicle.

Most significantly, the fifteen stolen computers had not been recovered and the police were hunting but failed to locate a fourth person who, according to the acting police commissioner, was not a suspect but had “crucial evidence” relating to the break-in.

On 24 March 2017 Business Day reported that “sources close to the investigation” said the man the police was looking for, Nkosinati Msimango was being “protected by elements in the state security services”.

If true, it vindicates the Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip John Steenhuisen‏’s tweet that State Security Minister David Mahlobo has a hand in the matter – a remark  which was  shot down as a wild allegation by the ANC.

On the same day, the same newspaper reported that Msimango accompanied by his lawyer had handed himself over to the police “to clear his name” and ask the acting police commissioner to explain to him why he was considered to be in possession of “crucial evidence”.

Nagging feeling     

There is a nagging feeling that this case, like others, will remain unresolved and only strengthen the suspicion of high level political interference and cover-ups.

Hopefully the truth and real reason(s) for the break-in at the OCJ will be revealed in court. 

Nobody enjoys being proven wrong but there is little doubt that in this case it would be a massive relief if the suspicion and speculation were misplaced.

by Garth Cilliers

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