Shades of Watergate in heist of computers, documents from HSF by “robbers”

You can’t make this stuff up. Yesterday afternoon while the ANC’s National Executive Committee deliberated on the future of President Jacob Zuma, a well organised, heavily armed group of half a dozen “robbers” pulled a heist reminiscent of a famous politically-instigated break-in in Washington 44 years before. The American robbery evolved into the Watergate scandal which eventually resulted in the resignation of US President Richard Nixon. Sunday’s burglary of computers and documents from the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) – all other valuables were ignored – threatens similar shockwaves. But while the Watergate coverup was only exposed after journalistic sleuthing and assistance from an internal informer, the HSF heist was transparently arrogant. It came four days after the Foundation has launched an urgent interdict to stop the head of the Hawks from exercising his powers alleging his dubious record makes him unfit for the post. What’s more, after tying up the guard, the thieves ignored all potential swag, headed straight for the HSF offices accompanied by a woman with a notebook, taking orders on a cell phone. They procured computers and documents, leaving behind stuff common criminals would have grabbed. Here is Marianne Tham’s news breaking article republished with permission of the Daily Maverick, plus the statements from the Foundation and the DA Shadow Minister of Police. – Alec Hogg

By Marianne Thamm* 

Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) director Francis Antonie said he was shocked by the apparently well-orchestrated and brazen robbery which occurred at the foundation’s offices in Parktown, Johannesburg around 2.30pm on Sunday.

“We arrived to find the security guard handcuffed to the railing. He said that two men had entered the premises and had taken him to the basement. From there he made a phone call and white combi with four people, all of them well dressed and one of them with a shotgun, arrived. Three of them went upstairs and unlocked the security gate to our offices. A woman had a notebook and knew exactly what they wanted. They then received another call, took documents and the computers and they left,” said Antonie.

Helen Suzman
Helen Suzman

The intruders seemed to know their way around the foundation’s offices, said Antonie and while most of the foundation’s work was public and available on the Internet, he is of the opinion that those involved in the break in were attempting to find out more about the NGO’s networks.

“A policeman arrived from the Hillbrow station and when he asked what work we did and I explained the court cases we have been involved in, he simply closed his book and said ‘this is above me I have to take to my superiors’.”

Antonie said that the foundation had backed up all of its documents.

The raid also comes days after former Ipid head, Robert McBride, labelled the Hawks’ Crimes Against the State Unit – which is investigating Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan – as the “Gestapo wing of the Hawks”.

McBride, appeared in court on 16 March along with former Limpopo Ipid head, Innocent Kuba, and Ipid’s head of investigations, Matthews Sesoko, on charges of defeating the ends of justice related to the Zimbabweans’ renditions case.

After his appearance McBride said that the country’s law enforcement agencies were being manipulated.

“There is a conspiracy. The decision to move [Anwa] Dramat [former head of the Hawks] was taken long before Dramat was even issued with the notice [of suspension]. People knew who was going to be appointed to his position before that.”

McBride said he and his co-accused, Innocent Khuba, were asked on four occasions by Police Minister Nathi Nhleko to falsely implicate Dramat in the renditions.

The HSF has been at the forefront of several critical court cases in recent years including the Supreme Court of Appeal application – where the foundation acted as amicus curiae – upon which the court ruled on 15 March that the conduct of government in failing to take steps to arrest, detain and surrender to the International Criminal Court, the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, after his arrival in South Africa in June 2015, was inconsistent with its obligations under the Rome Statute.

Read also: Hawks desperation suggests Zupta dam is bursting. First Mentor, who’s next?

On Friday last week the HSF launched an application in the Pretoria High Court seeking to have Hawks head, Lieutenant-General Mthandazo Berning Ntlemeza, suspended as his appointment was unlawful. The Minister of Police, Nathi Nthleko delayed the case for four months by stalling correspondence to the HSF with regard to the case.

“Major General Ntlemeza was appointed to the highest office within the Republic’s corruption and crime fighting unit, the Hawks, despite damning judicial findings impugning his integrity, honesty and fitness and propriety to hold such office. Both the HSF and Freedom Under Law (FUL) contend that, based on the reasons provided by the office of the Minister, these judicial findings were not even, or were not properly, considered. Moreover, in light of such findings, Major General Ntlemeza could never have properly been appointed and is unfit for office,” said the foundation.

The Foundation and Freedom Under Law have submitted that Ntlemeza is not fit to hold office as he was found by Gauteng Judge Elias Matojane to have lied under oath. The foundation has also argued that Ntlemeza is a threat to national stability and that Minister Nhleko failed to consider this ruling.

Nathi_Nhleko_slider
Nathi Nhleko, Minister of Police

However Nhleko, at a press conference given jointly with Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, on 2 March, made his views clear on the matter stating that Judge Matojane had not made a “finding” but that his statement that Ntlemeza had lied and was dishonest was merely “an opinion”.

Antonie said that the attack on the HSF offices had been well-planned and executed in a military style. The robbery has taken place in a toxic political climate where the Hawks, under Ntlemeza, have targeted apparent opponents of President Jacob Zuma. It is reminiscent of apartheid era unlawful raids on anti-apartheid activists and NGOs particularly during the era when the securocrats were in ascendency. And it happened just days after the HSF’s court action that targets Ntlemeza himself.

What an incredible coincidence indeed.

  • Marianne Thamm is the assistant editor of the Daily Maverick. Follow her on Twitter at @MarianneThamm
Some of the dozens of comments posted under the link to this story on Alec Hogg's Facebook page.
Some of the dozens of comments posted under the link to this story on Alec Hogg’s Facebook page.

From The Helen Suzman Foundation:

The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) was the target of an armed break-in to its offices in Parktown, Johannesburg on Sunday afternoon 20 March. After holding up an unarmed security guard at the entrance to the premises, the robbers made directly for the HSF’s offices on the second floor of the building and removed its computers.

“This was no ordinary robbery”, says Francis Antonie, director of the Foundation, “the thieves knew exactly what they were after. We obviously do not know who they were, but we have our deep suspicions.

“After forcing the guard to open the gate, the invaders drove their vehicle into the basement of the building, where they knew there was a lift to the second floor. Other businesses in the building were left alone. Nothing else of value besides the computers was taken.”

The HSF is one of several civic organisations which have embarked on litigation against the Government in an attempt to preserve and protect civil rights and freedoms under the Constitution. Most recently, the HSF and the legal organisation, Freedom under Law, sought to interdict the head of the Hawks, Major General Berning Ntlemeza, from exercising his powers, pending a review of the processes leading to his appointment.

General Ntlemeza was appointed by President Zuma to the highest office within the Hawks, the country’s leading corruption and crime fighting unit, notwithstanding previously damning judicial findings impugning his integrity, honesty and fitness.

“This action against a public-interest NGO is an example of the illegality running riot in our country. We deplore it. The HSF wants nothing more than a country which protects its citizens’ rights through the due process of law. The HSF calls on all civil society organisations, the business community as well as the public at large to stand together and speak out loudly in defence of the ever-growing threat to the hard-won freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.”

By Zakhele Mbhele MP, DA Shadow Minister of Police:

The Democratic Alliance is deeply concerned about the highly suspicious armed robbery that took place at the offices of the Helen Suzman Foundation yesterday afternoon which according to reports, had the hallmarks of a meticulously planned and executed military-style raid. While armed crime is at high levels in South Africa and has been for several years, this robbery, given the target, raises an eyebrow.

DA_Logo_Feb_2016We will be writing to law enforcement requesting a speedy investigation and that Parliament be briefed on the events that surrounding this robbery.

This robbery is concerning for three main reasons. Firstly, the timing is dubious. The robbery occurred four days after the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) and Freedom Under Law launched an urgent application seeking, according to an HSF media release, to interdict Lieutenant General Berning Ntlemeza from exercising any power or discharging any function or duty as the head of the Hawks (the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation). This interdict would operate pending the outcome of a judicial review of Police Minister Nathi Nhleko’s decision to appoint Ntlemeza as Head of the Hawks.

Given Ntlemeza’s crucial position as Nhleko’s side-kick in their hitman operations against politically inconvenient or “troublesome” individuals, the success of this interdict would obviously be a major stumbling block in their ongoing efforts to protect President Jacob Zuma and his allies or friends from independent investigations.

Secondly, the manner in which the robbery was reported to have been executed is glaringly suspect. Its precision and orchestration seem to be well above the pay-grade of run-of-the-mill criminal syndicates that underpin and propagate most property crime, especially in light of the relatively low value of the assets taken, namely computers and document. In addition, a total of seven individuals are said to have been involved in this robbery. The loot taken would not ordinarily warrant such an intensive investment of skills and effort for a standard robbery.

Thirdly and perhaps most revealing of all, when a policeman from Hillbrow police station arrived to take a statement at the HSF offices, he refused to do so once he was told about the work of the Foundation and the court cases it has been involved been in, saying that this circumstance was above him and he would have to take it to his superiors.

This is very irregular because, whatever that means, the correct procedure is for a statement to be taken by the local police station after a crime is committed and from there, a case can be transferred or escalated for further investigation if it is deemed to be of priority status or a specialised nature. The actions of this officer are reflective of the stalling and stone-walling that has become the trademark of Police Minister Nathi Nhleko as the political head of the police service.

With today being Human Rights Day, it is an occasion to remember that the struggle for true freedom and the entrenching of constitutional democracy is a never-ending one. This brazen raid on an activist civic organisation that works to defend our Bill of Rights and is named after one of the heroes of anti-apartheid efforts that culminated in the same Bill of Rights is another signal that we can never be complacent in guarding against threats to the human rights we are commemorating.