The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
In this episode of The Alec Hogg Show, BizNews founder Alec Hogg engages with Paul O’Sullivan, nemesis of the corrupt. In this half hour, O’Sullivan opens up about his Irish childhood that sounds a lot like that in Frank McCourt’s classic Angela’s Ashes to the reason why he has channelled the fruits of a successful business career into bringing the powerful to society’s heel.
Welcome to episode one of The Alec Hogg Show. A half hour audio biography with our guests selected simply because they’re interesting. Our guest in this episode – our inaugural one – is Paul O’Sullivan, the famous anti-corruption campaigner whose efforts have led to the exposure and ejection of many powerful establishment figures, including two heads of the South African Police force and a whole posse of once untouchable political icons.
Like the other guests on this show, Paul’s been selected on the basis that if his story were captured in book form, it would likely be a bestseller, which in reality is the case with him. Marianne Thamm’s 2014 biography ‘To Catch a Cop‘ sold extremely well. So eavesdrop on what follows and I’ve got a feeling that by the end you’ll know Paul better, but also most definitely leave uplifted and inspired by his example.
Paul, it’s good to be talking to you any time, but particularly now on this inaugural episode. I was having a look through the book that Marianne Thamm wrote about you. Clearly, you were pretty involved in that. Given your need to stay in the shadows to a large degree, why actually have a book written about you in the first place?
Marianne wanted to write the book, so I thought what the heck? Let the people know what’s going on out there. At the end of the day, I don’t have any need to stay in the shadows. It’s the criminals that I chase that want to stay in the shadows. What I do is drag them out of the shadows.
Where did it all start? I know you are from Ireland?
So it started for me when somebody broke into my car back in 1989, when I was a young immigrant to South Africa. At the time I was the general manager of the Eastern Province Building Society in Gauteng. My P.A at the time told me her husband’s a policeman. So he came along, and we had a whole discussion. He said, “Why don’t you become a police reservist?”
So I did. You have to put in eight hours a month. I put in probably 10 hours a week. During that time apartheid was in its dying years. It was almost over. I moved to South Africa after the vote to dismantle apartheid was carried as a yes vote. I collected my permanent residence permit from Dennis Worrall, who was then the ambassador in London. Now it’s the high commissioner there. It was ambassador then because South Africa had been kicked out of the Commonwealth (they’re back in it now). So, it’s been a long journey. I became a police reservist and started training other people to do the same.
I became the head lecturer at the police training centre in Houghton. Between 1990 and 2000, I think I trained 1,500 police reservists.
I trained them in Criminal Law A and B and the new Constitution, which came out in 1996, but we started training people on the draft of it in 1995. We also trained people in police administration, which is a very important part of policing. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to write a sworn statement. We trained them how to be observant, trained them about victims rights and all that sort of stuff. So I did that for 10 years.
It’s quite a jump, Paul. From being the manager of a building society into teaching policemen how to police. Did you have much background in it?
Well, I had, because I’d been a policeman myself. I’d served previously in the United Nations police and the military police in the UK. So I did have a background in policing and I was pretty good at what I did. I was involved in counter-terrorism and counter-espionage. I just thought to use those skills in my new home, which was then South Africa.
My old man used to say, if a country is good enough to live in, it’s good enough to fight for.
So I decided to fight for it, and my way of adding something back into the community was to do that. Some people have different ways of doing it. Some people go and volunteer at the SPCA or they’ll go and volunteer at the local children’s home. What I decided to do was to volunteer in the police.
Your old man?
During the war, my old man was an engineer in the Royal Navy – the British Navy – even though he was from Dublin. A lot of people during the war in Ireland, they went and joined the British forces because it was the right thing to do. After the war, he became a colonial policeman. He was in Palestine, (British) Malaya and Hong Kong. Then he went back to Ireland and he was in the Garda Síochána.
Yes, naturally. With a name like O’Sullivan, you’re born, you grow up and you go to school. In our case, it was national school and the priests, the Christian brothers. I ended up at Christian Brothers College. That’s what we did. I think that was the way of many kids in those days.
For many South Africans, the Irish story of that era has been shaped by books of poverty and difficulties that Ireland had. Did you have an easy or not so easy upbringing?
Paul O’Sullivan on how his childhood shaped him
We had it hard. So I had lots of brothers and sisters. Some of them passed away at a very young age through what we knew as consumption then. Of course, it’s now known by its correct name, which is tuberculosis. Consumption was the killer in Ireland in those days. We had an outside toilet. We had no electricity. The outside toilet was constantly moved because, that’s the way it worked. A big hole in the ground and when it wouldn’t take anymore, I guess that’s what happened. I remember when the modern era started ushering its way in.
They came with a truck and they delivered a new outside toilet where you had to walk up steps into the hut. Once a week they came and they emptied the bin at the back. So we then moved from having an outside toilet where it went into a hole in the ground, to what I guess is commonly now called the bucket system. Then I think a year after that, they came with wiring and poles and they put electricity into the house. So we certainly weren’t living in the lap of luxury. The house had three rooms. The main room – which was the kitchen, lounge and everything all in one – and two bedrooms with no running water at all.
How many kids?
The most there were at any one time were six.
It was very similar to that, except we were in a rural environment. Angela’s Ashes was in the town – in the west of Ireland – called Limerick, which was probably about 50-60 miles or 70-100 kilometres from where we lived. We were in a rural setting. I mean, we had to arrive at school with clean shoes, so we used to tie the shoelaces together and just hang them over our neck and walk to school barefoot. We did this because there was no proper way of getting to school with clean shoes because you’d be walking along muddy and rainy roads. When we got to school, we’d rinse our feet off and put our socks and shoes on, so that we wouldn’t be in trouble for having dirty shoes at school.
Paul, when you look around South Africa, there are many people who live that way today in this country. Has that influenced you – your upbringing – in any way and in this obsessive mission that you’ve got to attack the criminal element?
It absolutely has. The people that are engaged in corruption are stealing not from me and you. Of course, they are stealing from us. But the main victims of their crime are those people that have to tie their shoes around their necks before they walk to school, don’t have proper toilets or have no electricity. Those are the real victims of corruption because the people that are corrupt are actually stealing the future of the country.
The people that get affected by most are the poorest of the poor. If somebody steals, let’s say, a R100,000 from you or me. Yes, it’s painful. It’s not something we enjoy watching or feeling. But if you steal R100,000 from somebody whose gross income for the year is R25,000 or R30,000, you’ve stolen three years of their salary. it’s shocking, really. How on earth can you have a situation where young girls live in abject poverty, don’t have money for sanitary pads, walk five or six kilometres to school in all weathers and walk home again.
Along the way, they get accosted by sugar daddies and offered free rides and stuff like that. It’s that type of thing that we have to deal with in South Africa. That’s why I’ve also been backing – and not a lot of people know that – a charity called Qhubeka, which puts bicycle’s into rural areas so that young females don’t have to rely on some drive-by person offering them a lift or getting into a car with strangers. We have to do it and the best way to do it is to work at it together.
Back to the whole crime fighting approach. You’ve been very public in this. You’re well-known in South Africa and have been well-known for some years. Is that part of the strategy?
What the criminals are most afraid of is being caught and being exposed.
You’ve only got to look at Selebi. He was calling media conferences to tell the media that I was a bad guy or a foreign spy, here to destabilise the police. Phahlane did exactly the same. He was running around all the media houses trying to put his version of events over instead of running the police force. So the best way to deal with these criminals is to expose them to public scrutiny. What does it do? Not only does it expose them, but it triggers other witnesses to come forward with more damning evidence. That’s what happens in all the cases that we investigate. So we start with the case. The minute it pops out of the woodwork that we’re busy on a case, people write to us and give us more information.
But what about personal security? Often in journalism, one meets people who tell you things and you say, “Well great, let’s go on the record.” and they can’t because they’re too scared.
If you’re living in a township and you want to be a whistleblower, you probably don’t have the ability to protect yourself. You have to be very careful. I have good security at my place. CCTV cameras, high walls, electric fences etc. If anybody really has the balls to get over those fences and try it on, I’ve got my firearm.
It’s not to say it can’t happen. I mean, Krejčíř tried to kill me six or seven times. When Krejčíř sent people to try and kill me, the docket that I opened to have those people arrested was intercepted by friends of Phahlane and Krejčíř, so that the guy would get away scot free. There have been these attempts to kill me. I believe in God. So maybe God’s looking after me.
Is it getting any better for you? You speak about these attempts on your life from a criminal who is no longer at large in South Africa. Is there any improvement?
I think so. I mean, Radovan Krejčíř now can’t access a telephone. He complained bitterly in his various court applications (which all failed) that his family phone him – they have a call once a month – and they have to talk in English. The minute they start talking in Czech, the call is terminated and all of his calls are recorded by the prison service. So he’s no longer in a position to hire people to come and kill me. The sad part about it is all the people he hired all got caught. They now know that the money he was offering that he never had anyway. He was offering all these great amounts of money, but he’s penniless. He doesn’t have a cent.
Are criminal enterprises run like businesses?
Absolutely. This is why you have this Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act and the Prevention of Organised Crime Act. You have to have this legislation because these people run their organised crime business. There’s proof of that, for example, when it comes to an armed robbery of a bank. They’ll spend three or four days watching the bank before they rob it. They’ll get up early in the morning.
In some cases, they’re far more industrious than some of our captains of industry are. You’ve only got to look at the tobacco industry as a classic example. There we had a lockdown and within a week, counterfeit and unlawful cigarettes were on a booming black market. If the police seized R10-million worth, it was a very small percentage of what was manufactured and supplied out there.
But what are they scared of? When you talk about a captain of industry? He’s scared of reputational damage. He doesn’t want people to think ill of him. Is this something like that within a criminal enterprise or do they just not care?
You see, the problem is that they captured the criminal justice system. They are pretty convinced that they won’t go to prison. Krejčíř was a classic example of that. He had lawyers working for him and the lawyers were harassing me. They kept bringing interdict applications against me. They wanted to prevent me from doing anything. But I fought them. Eventually, he lost and he’s in jail now. He will be there for the rest of his natural life. He will never step foot in the free world again. It’s my intention to make sure that those who stole the future of that country get exactly the same treatment.
You also get attacked – not only directly – through things that are sent to the media. How do you deal with those kinds of challenges?
O’Sullivan on dealing with criminals and the media
Remember, the people that commit wholesale crime, they process millions and millions, in some cases hundreds of millions of rand. So for them, it’s no problem to hire a few dirty lawyers and bring in an application to interdict you. They do it on a regular basis. Or they get people that are gifted with the tongue to write media releases or leak stuff to the media, which is false.
In one case, they fabricated documents and gave them to people at COSATU, who did the media release themselves. These fabricated documents purported to be stuff from me claiming to be a white supremacist. Fortunately, all of the media people that got it, looked at it and realised it was rubbish. Nothing was printed, but it just shows you the lengths they will go to.
I have to be alert to these situations. But at the end of the day, whatever they can say, I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years. By now, people know that my heart is in the right place and I’m doing it for my country. Nobody is paying me. That’s the sad part. You know, people ask questions like “Where’s he getting the money from?” I’ve got my own businesses, which are quite successful.
I use my funds to do these things. I’m entitled to do that just, in the same way as somebody going out to buy food parcels. Which, by the way, we bought several hundred food parcels in March and April of this year and distributed it at our local informal settlement in Innesfree Park. People are free to do what they want with their own money, and I’ve chosen to use my spare money to make the country a better place, especially for the poor.
What businesses, Paul?
I like to keep my business life reasonably under wraps, but I’m involved in property. My main business activity is property. I have a forensic practice which is enormously successful. I have some really good, talented people that work for me. We do investigations you never read about in the media, because they’re not investigations which have a public interest angle. When big corporations get defrauded by employees, they come to us and we deal with it. I have property interests in different parts of the world, which I have had for a number of years. I have property interests in South Africa.
In fact, just a few months ago, everyone said I was mad. I bought a house, a big house in Houghton – I can’t remember the exact figure, it was R12-million or R13-million. and I’m putting in a planning application to subdivide it into seven plots and build seven upmarket houses there. That’s the sort of thing that I’ve been busy with. In South Africa, I’ve been involved in the construction of residential properties, business properties and even retail properties in the past. I think in the last 30 years, I’ve probably built 1500 houses in South Africa. At one stage I bought 20 stands in Dainfern when they were going for R99,999 each. On some of those stands I built houses, the others I sold at a profit. The property business has been good to me.
But the property business is also very long-term and when you look at South Africa, most people today, who do have money all looking to diversify – a polite word for saying getting it out of the country. Yet, you’re buying property. What makes you different?
I’m busy with a partner at the moment to build a hotel in Pretoria. R65-million. We put it on hold, obviously, because the tourism industry is going through a bit of a wobbler as a result of Covid-19. So Covid-19 will probably deal a bit of a blow to my property business, but we don’t owe any money to any banks. Everything that we own has been paid for with cash. Covid-19 can’t wipe us out, it can just devalue what we have.
For those people that want to get their money out of the country, that’s their business. I have a little bit in the way of properties overseas, actually, not a little bit, probably quite a bit. I have not had a need to take any money out of South Africa. In fact, the property that I bought in December/January, I brought in R15-million to buy that property and pay for the planning application. my money has been going in the opposite direction. I’ve been investing in South Africa.
You’ve only got to go and spend a few weeks in London and you realise why. I’m in London at the moment, flying back in a few weeks time and I can’t wait to get home.
Cyril Ramaphosa’s humility
You have met and dealt with Cyril Ramaphosa. I remember the very famous picture in a local newspaper of him being a graduate at the time that you were a police reservist trainer. Is he part of the reason why you are confident about the future of this country?
Politicians are politicians. Cyril is not a natural politician.
You look at his background, he was a trade unionist. What was he doing that for? He wanted to make life better for poor people. The exploited, hard-working labour of the mines and other areas in the country, where people worked exceedingly hard in very difficult working environments and get paid an absolute pittance. I think Cyril had the right idea there, trying to improve their lot. So, he was a trade unionist. He followed on from that and became prominent in the ANC. Thank God, because he helped negotiate the Peace Accord, which led to a smooth transition from apartheid to democracy.
I would occasionally meet him at Wandies Place in Soweto. This was when white people just didn’t go into Soweto, they were too afraid to. In fact, I started the first tourism bus into Soweto, back in 1995 or 1996. Training Cyril as a police reservist was quite interesting, because there I was giving lectures about the Constitution and then of course, to make sure they understood things properly – as you do in any training environment – you ask the students questions. If somebody made a stupid statement, I would then turn to Cyril and say, “Well, what do you say about that, Constable?” It was quite interesting to watch the dynamics in the classroom.
Was he humble?
Very. He’s always been a humble person. You can’t take that away from him. Of course he made good in business, so what? Some people are lucky. If you’re in the right place at the right time and there’s BEE shares being handed out, who would say no? On the other side of the coin, he’s done a lot of good. He’s got my support – certainly from the point of view of eradicating corruption. Hopefully, he’ll clean up the ANC. We’ve got to keep our fingers crossed because there’s some pretty bad eggs in there.
In fact, recently we’ve uncovered a member of the provincial legislature in KZN who tried to enrich himself by R100-million. I guess that will probably blow out into the media soon. Nothing to do with PPE, more to do with a property transaction where this particular person got his 28-year old daughter to form a company a week before a tender was advertised, then bid R100-million more than the next highest bidder and still got awarded the tender.
We put a stop to that already. But, it’s the sort of thing that’s going on. Now, that R100-million comes out of the pot of money that’s left out there. If you take R100-million out of that pot, it’s R100-million less you have for infrastructure.
And for those kids, who have to tie their shoes and carry them around their necks, as you said earlier.
That’s a tricky one. But what about the children that got washed away while they were trying to ford the river? They have to ford it every day, they have to walk through it on foot every day. They got washed away during the heavy rains. Now, there should be a bridge there. Instead, the children get washed away, drowned. What a terrible thing to happen. I put that fairly and squarely at the footsteps of these corrupt politicians who’ve stolen the money that could have built that bridge.
Forensics for Justice. How did that come about?
So what happened was, we were involved in the case six or seven years ago and we lacked legal standing. In other words, we wanted to bring a court application and the lawyer said, “Who’s going to be the applicant?” I said I’ll do it. He said, “No, but you don’t have legal standing.” I said, “What do you mean? There’s corruption going on and I want to put a stop to it.” He said, “Yes but, what’s stopping any other citizen just standing up and launching the application.”
He said to me I need to have legal standing. So we had a big discussion. I decided we’re going to form a non-profit company – a charity actually – and we’ll call it Forensics for Justice, because everything we do is based on forensics. I’ll fund it. We’ll get it off the ground. Its aims and objectives are to eradicate corruption. So the investigations we do are done under the auspices of Forensics for Justice.
Are you getting support?
Not as much as I’d like. I think people tend to support organisations like OUTA and other organisations like that. We do have a certain amount of stuff on the website, but we’ve just got a simple process where you click on a button to donate. It’s been on my mind for a while now to try and set up the thing where people can make it a subscription donation.
In the last five years, we probably had somewhere between R300,000-R400,000 of donations. But during the same period I’ve probably spent R10-million or R15-million of my own money. It would be nice to get the thing to a point where it becomes self-sustaining. However, having said that, I’ve said that if we’re successful at what we do, we’re actually going to put ourselves out of business.
That’s what my real aim is. To bring about a situation whereby there’s no need for organisations like us. When the criminal justice system is uncaptured, you’ll have good quality cops and prosecutors out there doing what I’m doing, instead of me doing their work for them.
Paul, what do your family think about all of this? You mentioned earlier you’ve got one child who works for NASA, another who’s a doctor. Those are pretty prestigious careers that they’ve managed to carve out. What about your other kids and your wife?
I don’t really talk publicly about my family. They know what daddy does and that’s it. They accept it, you know, and when times are hard they’ll even encourage me. I’ve got a good family. I’m very lucky. God was good to me.
What have you got up your sleeve?
What I want to do is finish off some of these stories that we’ve started, especially to clean up the criminal justice system.
As you know, I’m suing the state for R150-million or so. My plan is to take that money and use it to put together a no nonsense team of lawyers and investigators that will finish off what I started. You know, Phahlane, Selebi and some of these other dirty generals – over the years, they’ve appointed many criminals into the police service.
Now, how can you have effective policing and effective prosecutions when you’ve got dirty cops and dirty prosecutors out there? So we have a long list of people we’ve identified that we want to get rid of. We don’t believe that the criminal justice system will be effective again until those people have been shown the door. We intend to get rid of them and then hopefully when that’s all done we’ll be able to say, “Okay, well, there you go. The criminal justice system is now functioning. No need for me.”
How long might that take?
I don’t know. Maybe another five or 10 years. I’ve been at it for a few years already. So another five or 10 – if God gives me that time on Earth – I’ll gladly do it.
To listen to the entire inspiring interview, download the link here: The Alec Hogg Show – Paul O’Sullivan: From Angela’s Ashes to Crimefighter Extraordinaire. Ep 1 (or find the interview on BizNews Radio on the BizNews home page). You can also subscribe to The Alec Hogg Show on Spotify here.
Cyril Ramaphosa: The Audio Biography
Listen to the story of Cyril Ramaphosa's rise to presidential power, narrated by our very own Alec Hogg.