18/01/2018 10:46 SAST | Updated 18/01/2018 11:29 SAST

'Richard Mdluli Had Friends In High Places'

Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies dissects the fraught legacy of the notorious former Crime Intelligence boss.

Bongiwe Gumede/ Gallo Images
Suspended Crime Intelligence head Richard Mdluli at the Boksburg Magistrate's Court on June 24, 2011.

Suspended crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli has been relieved of all duties as of Wednesday.

Lieutenant-General Mdluli was the head of police crime intelligence in South Africa from 2009 to 2012. He was replaced by Chris Ngcobo.

There is a prima facie case against Mdluli for his pillaging of the secret slush fund. He has no charges of fraud or corruption against him, and although he has been dismissed, he was due to go on pension in a few months' time – so this is not a major setback for him.

The following article was transcribed from a HuffPost interview with ISS expert, Dr Johan Burger.

Q: Why is Mdluli regarded as a controversial figure?

A: First of all, he was involved some years ago – in the Ekhuruleni area – he was arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping. And as far as I know, those cases [are still] in our courts. And then, of course, he was eventually appointed head of crime intelligence in the South African Police Service (SAPS) – and subsequently, reports by one of the generals at crime intelligence implicated him in serious allegations of fraud, corruption and a number of criminal charges.

For some reason, he appeared able to avoid prosecution in those cases. There were rumours about a special relationship with President [Jacob] Zuma, advocate [Nomgcobo] Jiba at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) – and the then-national commissioner of police, Riah Phiyega... So it just looked like he was able – for six years in fact – to avoid facing any kind of charges.

So, of course, the logical conclusion was that he had friends in very high places, and that he was protected against prosecution.

Q: Does Mdluli's suspension mean that police minister Fikile Mbalula is (indeed) committed to good governance? Or does it communicate a different message to the public regarding the police administration?

A: In all fairness to the minister: soon after he took over in his current position as police minister, he did say that he was concerned about the state of affairs within crime intelligence – which had become hugely dysfunctional – and the fact that the public had to contend with the situation of repeated acting heads of the division, in addition to a number of other issues there.

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Police Minister Fikile Mbalula addresses the media at the lodge where Dutch tourists were robbed after they arrived from the OR Tambo International Airport on September 26, 2017 in Fourways, South Africa. Mbalula said the robbery of Dutch tourists was an attack on the tourism sector and the economy. (Photo by Felix Dlangamandla/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

He did say that he would look into this matter – of course, it took him a while – but behind the scenes, there was, in fact, a disciplinary investigation – and we now know what that outcome is. We now have a situation where there's some kind of finality.

It could also be that the minister was aware that there soon would be winds of change blowing in the political arena, and there was this unfortunate era of the previous minister of police that created complete public distrust in the department and the department's ability to deal with corruption amongst senior police officers within the department.

So when this minister was appointed, his first words almost when he took over office, were that he would be looking into this. And we have seen some good results – the restoration of a relationship between him and the executive director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) -- he has also taken firm steps to remove General (Berning) Ntlemeza from the Hawks, and now the action against Mdluli.

It does look like right from the start, he was quite prepared to take control of the situation.

Q: Could one say this is one of the results of the political winds of change that are blowing as you mentioned earlier?

A: It does seem so, and perhaps I'm willing it to seem so. But I am convinced that there has been a real impact.

We have some good sense with starting to realise that the public sentiment was turning against not just government and the alleged levels of corruption and abuse of state resources, but also turning against the ANC.

We saw that in the 2016 local elections – that the tide was beginning to change, and I think sensible people within the ANC and within government started realising that unless we take firm action against this kind of conduct and rid ourselves of individuals who are exploiting their positions, then we will eventually lose the elections. The ANC understands that it will lose its position as the leading political party in the country.

I think in discussions within the ANC – and that I'm certain elsewhere in government – people were starting to take this profession seriously, and we may not always like the things he says -- or more correctly, the way in which he says things.

But if you look at his track record and whether he has been receiving full credit for this – one does not know; but it appears he has taken action on these things. Now we're seeing a few positive developments – I think there's a silver lining on something that became a dark cloud in South Africa.

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JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 24: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT) Suspended Crime Intelligence Head Richard Mdluli arrives at the Boksburg Magistrate's Court on June 24, 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Hawks arrested the lieutenant general in March on charges including murder and kidnapping, a decade after the crime he allegedly covered up. (Photo by Bongiwe Gumede/Gallo Images)

Q: Why is Mdluli's dismissal noteworthy, and why is the crime intelligence unit so important for the South African public?

A: The Institute for Security Studies and many other commentators have pointed out the importance of a free, functional and effective crime intelligence division. The crime intelligence division is the guiding light for all policing operations. If they do not tell us who the criminals are, where they are and how they operate, the rest of the police service walks around in the dark.

Mdluli's focus was not so much on the performance of crime intelligence, but on how he could exploit the resources at his disposal for personal benefit. So over time, crime intelligence started losing its ability to deal with crime syndicates.

He was also surrounded by individuals who were not competent in the particular units in which they were employed – and that gradually led to the removal of people who had been working in crime intelligence for years; who had the relevant experience for the job.

To a large extent, under this type of leaderless existence, crime intelligence became completely dysfunctional. And that is still the current position, so whoever takes over now will have to rebuild the unit – and that will certainly not happen overnight.

Dr Johan Burger is the senior researcher at the Crime and Justice Programme of the ISS and Professor Extraordinarius, Dept of Police Practice, UNISA