Godfrey Lebeya. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Godfrey Lebeya. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

A former candidate for the public protector position who was pipped to the post by Thuli Madonsela has been appointed SA’s chief crime fighter.

Seswantsho Godfrey Lebeya has been appointed by the Cabinet as the head of the directorate for priority crime investigation, the Hawks.

Lebeya, a career cop with 30 years’ experience, was engaged in a long legal battle with former national police commissioner Riah Phiyega after she tried to dismiss him in March 2014.

His appointment follows a period of turbulence in the Hawks, which has been accused of dragging its feet on corruption cases, especially those involving state capture. The elite police crime-fighting unit was also seen as a site of political contestation and manoeuvring under former president Jacob Zuma.

Under former head Berning Ntlemeza, who was forced to step down in disgrace, the unit was also involved in an ugly public spat with then finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

It is against this backdrop that Lebeya’s appointment was warmly welcomed on Thursday, including by general secretary of the South African Policing Union Oscar Skommere and chairman of the portfolio committee on police Francois Beukman.

Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane announced Lebeya’s appointment on Thursday during a post-Cabinet media briefing.

Lebeya, who has a doctorate in law, was deputy national police commissioner of the crime detection unit from February 2011 to May 2016.

He will replace Lt-Gen Yolisa Matakata, who has been the acting head of the Hawks since April 2017.

Lebeya was a candidate for the public protector’s position, which was eventually taken up by Madonsela.

Skommere said Lebeya had experience and brought with him managerial and investigative capabilities. “This is what the Hawks has been missing,” he said. “We are satisfied.”

Beukman said Lebeya was a “good and considerate choice”.

He said the amendment of the South African Police Service Act was now critical, because the Hawks should have a separate budget vote to strengthen the organisation’s independence and effectiveness.

“We believe he has the necessary qualifications and experience to lead the Hawks in a new era, where corruption-busting will be the number one priority.”

The committee believed Lebeya would have to refocus the unit on transnational crime, the organised drug and illegal firearms trade, and crime syndicates in the economic sector.