Rob Rose Editor: Financial Mail
Investigative directorate director Hermione Cronje and national director of public prosecutions Shamila Batohi at NPA head office. Picture: Ntswe Mokoena
Investigative directorate director Hermione Cronje and national director of public prosecutions Shamila Batohi at NPA head office. Picture: Ntswe Mokoena

There has been considerable outrage in recent days over the fact that Steinhoff will give R30m to the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to investigate the fraud involving, well, itself.

Legal experts are unanimous that it’s a conflict of interest, as the FM reported last week.

But it’s a revelation that lays bare some far darker truths at SA’s crime-fighting authorities, with implications for just how adeptly criminal complaints are being investigated.

Sipho Ngwema, spokesperson for the NPA, knows the issues backwards.

More than a decade ago, he was at the Scorpions when it was a much-feared priority crimes directorate that put criminals behind bars — including Regal Bank CEO Jeff Levenstein, Jacob Zuma’s former financial adviser Schabir Shaik and politician Tony Yengeni.

But the ANC voted to kill the Scorpions as one of the first orders of business once Jacob Zuma had been installed as president after the Polokwane elective conference in December 2007. Immediately, rare investigating skills began to trickle out of the state to private forensics outfits like KPMG and PwC.

Speaking to journalist Mandy Wiener on radio station 702 last week, Ngwema put his finger on why SA isn’t winning the war on corruption – white-collar or political – just yet.

You need money, you need capacity [to fight crime]. And you must remember we eroded a lot of good people over the past 10 years or so. We need to bring those people back,” he said.

Ngwema added that the NPA also needs to “compete with the private sector in terms of bringing the skills and helping us build the capacity”.

It’s a point well made, even if the Hawks shouldn’t be going with a begging bowl to ask companies implicated in crime to pay for the investigations. If President Cyril Ramaphosa wants to demonstrate criminal consequence for wrongdoing, he needs to pay up.

What, after all, is R30m to hire a private forensic auditor compared to the R118m splurged on buying an empty piece of land in New York to house diplomats? Or the R431m spent to needlessly “decontaminate” Gauteng’s schools last year?

Morale-destroying chaos

But just pumping more money into the Hawks and the NPA wouldn’t necessarily guarantee success either. You might woo back some of the prodigal forensic investigators, but ham-fisted and chaotic management of these crime-fighting institutions would ensure they won’t stay.

Consider this alarming, and rather desperate, indication of just how broken the systems really are in these organisations.

Yesterday, the City Press reported that the police have “lost” about 8-million pieces of evidence “after the computer system that helped detectives keep track of forensic samples collected at crime scenes was shut down due to a dispute over nonpayment”.

The report continued: “Since the computer system was shut down last June, detectives and forensic technicians can no longer say with certainty where the millions of pieces of evidence are, what tests are outstanding, and whether the evidence has been tampered with.”

And, as the cherry on top, the computerised firearms register which contains details of 500,000 police firearms was shut down as well over that same payment dispute.

Imagine how demotivating it must be to work against all odds to construct a watertight case, only for this evidence to go up in smoke because of administrative bungling? 

If anything, the City Press report only underscores what justice minister Ronald Lamola said in parliament last week, as he was grilled about why it has taken so long to act in the Steinhoff case.

Lamola was put on the spot by EFF MP Yoliswa Yako, who compared Steinhoff with the case of VBS Mutual Bank, in which arrests were made “very fast” and the masterminds have appeared in court.

Said Yako: “Because Markus Jooste is white and Steinhoff a white-owned company, no-one has been arrested and the NPA is moving at a snail’s pace. Is the NPA protecting white criminals and Jooste and the people of Steinhoff?”

Lamola rubbished this claim, as the Times reported. “There is no-one protecting white or black criminals,” he said. “[Investigations are] not informed by colour or orientation or the political views of any individual.”

Lamola is probably right. Certainly in the Steinhoff case there’s no evidence of any overarching conspiracy to protect anyone. If anything, it would help the perception of the state as even-handed were it to actually arrest any of the Steinhoff perpetrators.

But this doesn’t make the reality in our crime-fighting organisations any less frightening.

If you can lose 8-million pieces of evidence, how are you going to keep track of a labyrinthine investigation involving journal entries which took more than 100 PwC investigators 18 months to probe?

*Rose is editor of the FM

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