Seswantsho Godfrey Lebeya, the newly appointed head of the Hawks, literally wrote the textbook on organised crime in the country. His doctoral thesis was on understanding organised crime and comparing the situation in South Africa to that in Italy, Tanzania and the U.S. He is an admitted advocate, and achieved the rank of Lieutenant-General in the South African Police Service (SAPS), appointed as deputy national commissioner.
There could not be a better qualified candidate installed as the new boss of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation. In fact, forensic consultant Paul O'Sullivan — who has made a career out of pursuing dodgy cops — says he is "one of the smartest policemen [he has] ever encountered". However, Lebeya's appointment is not just a reflection of his impressively accomplished CV. His selection by President Ramaphosa and Cabinet signals a shift in the politics of policing.
For the past decade or so, there has been a deliberate, malicious evisceration of the country's law-enforcement agencies that has seen many excellent, capable civil servants being pushed out. Despite his glowing accomplishments, Lebeya was among these investigators, cops and prosecutors — who were all left to languish in the wilderness while criminals captured the criminal justice system.
Lebeya was suspended by former National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega — on unlawful grounds which he successfully challenged. It was seen at the time as a politically motivated move by her — Lebeya was allied to her predecessor, Bheki Cele, and she was cleaning house. Lebeya was also seen as the main driver against former Crime Intelligence head Richard Mdluli — and during the Zuma years, that meant he was persona non grata.
In addition, the SAPS was not at that time a hospitable environment for someone so intelligent and capable. Lebeya's return to the police is a clear indication that there is a change in regime, and that skills and credentials now matter far more than agendas. It is a far cry from the not-so-long-ago days of Berning Ntlameza — whom a court found to be a liar, without honour or integrity.
Crucially, Lebeya is also a career police officer, having served in the SAPS for more than thirty years. By his own admission, he never wanted to be a policeman, but instead harboured ambitions of becoming a mechanical engineer. However, as a young boy from rural Limpopo, there were few options at the time. The police college in Duiwelskloof seemed like a reasonable choice. One of Lebeya's first jobs was filing dockets submitted by detectives to the storeroom. He would study the statements and the evidence, and developed an appetite for the work.
Crime Intelligence has for a long time not [had] a head of the division, and... those who are sitting there are in acting capacity.
He wanted to get his hands dirty and ended up specialising in investigating commercial crimes. He has done the hard yards as a crime prevention officer, a commercial crimes detective, an organised crime detective, and as a commander. This means he comes with the practical know-how to back up his credentials on his CV.
I met Lieutenant-General Seswantsho Godfrey Lebeya, PhD, last year while researching "Ministry of Crime". A practising advocate who had been out of the police for four years, he agreed to an interview about his own experiences and his views on organised crime.
As he ate his bowl of healthy fruit salad, in his leather jacket and running cap, he struck me as pedantic; a stickler for the law and for granular details. I was keen to elicit quotes about what had gone wrong, and the messy politics of it all.
I was disappointed. Lebeya was a consummate professional, and was careful not to say anything inflammatory. Perhaps he hoped then, already, that he would return to the fold. However, he did tell me how the work being done to combat organised crime at the time had deteriorated from when he was in uniform.
"They can do much better than what we are doing as of now," he told me. "I can say this because if I compare the product today with what we have been able to do in 2011, they are doing very little now. I am seeing portfolio committee or Parliament researchers doing comparisons between the successes that we were able to achieve in 2011 and 2016, and they can't match close to that time.
"Organised crime has to be identified by Crime Intelligence, and the current Crime Intelligence is not that effective. Crime Intelligence has for a long time not [had] a head of the division, and ... those who are sitting there are in acting capacity."
He said that management should have been finalising the appointment of a head, so the division could operate effectively. Were it up to him, he said, he would appoint "an acting divisional commissioner", who wouldn't be required to "take instruction from a suspended person".
"We still have got competent people, who from time to time will [see] successes," he added, "but it is weakened, compared to where it is supposed to be today — we are supposed to be improving, not going down."
For the first time in years, South Africa now has a permanent National Police Commissioner, a permanent head of Crime Intelligence and a permanent head of the Hawks.
Nigh insurmountable task ahead
The task that lies ahead of Lebeya now is near insurmountable — one that would be daunting to any police officer, regardless of their track record. The country's capability to fight organised crime has been decimated by years of political infighting, factionalism and blatant corruption.
A senior cop told me recently that the country is "nowhere" in the battle against criminal syndicates, and that top generals just "sit on their hands, instead of dealing with the kingpins. There is currently an epidemic of cash-in-transit heists, and the evidence shows that police officers are complicit.
Three Hawks officers were convicted alongside Czech underworld boss Radovan Krejcir when he was found guilty of attempted murder and kidnapping. The trio was operating as his personal knock squad — kidnapping, intimidating and threatening people on his behalf. Corruption is so endemic and systemic, that it is going to take a gargantuan effort to get rid of it.
The other great challenge will be to change the public perception of the Hawks.
During the halcyon days of its predecessor, the Scorpions, the unit was seen as the darling of the crime-fighting world. With their Hollywoodesque raids and flamboyant show of force, the Scorpions buoyed the public confidence, regardless of all the criticism of selective cases and politically motivated agendas.
When the Scorpions' death knell was rung at the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference, there was always going to be little faith in the independence and credibility of whatever would replace it. Lebeya has an opportunity to change that.
For the first time in years, South Africa now has a permanent National Police Commissioner, a permanent head of Crime Intelligence and a permanent head of the Hawks. This is significant progress in the fight against crime and much to celebrate.
However, for many, the real applause will only come when they see the politicians implicated in state capture, the dirty lieutenants, the price-fixing cartels, the shamed CEOs and Zuma himself feeling the full might of the law.Mandy Wiener is a journalist and author. Her recently released book, 'Ministry of Crime', looks at the relationship between organised crime, powerful politicians and law-enforcement agencies in South Africa.