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IPID suspensions aim to thwart police corruption investigations, say former officials

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IPID’s new head has suspended a number of officials, including national head of investigations Matthews Sesoko

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Suspended IPID head of investigations Matthews Sesoko. Photo: Anton Scholtz
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The incoming acting head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Patrick Setshedi, has suspended a number of senior managers, including national head of investigations, Matthews Sesoko. This comes days before former police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane and several others are due back in court on fraud and corruption charges.

Sesoko was previously suspended in a 2015 management purge, during the state capture era.

Last week Monday, Police Minister Bheki Cele appointed Setshedi as the directorate’s new acting head. On Friday, Setshedi notified Sesoko and others of their suspension “pending a disciplinary enquiry into serious allegations of misconduct against you”.

Phahlane was arrested in March 2019 on fraud and corruption charges stemming from an IPID investigation into an R86 million-rand tender for the procurement of blue lights and other equipment for police vehicles. Last December he appeared in the Johannesburg Commercial Crime Court and a trial date is due to be set for him and his co-accused ast the hearing on 17 March.

Viewfinder understands that the IPID investigations into Phahlane and other high-ranking police officers are ongoing. Daily Maverick reported that IPID had assigned investigators to probe the construction of Phahlane’s home at the exclusive Sable Hills Estate, north of Pretoria – a development allegedly funded by a police service provider. On Tuesday morning Mandlakayise Mahlangu, the lead investigator in this case, was shot dead during an apparent robbery at his Jakkalsdans plot outside Pretoria. Paul O’Sullivan, a private investigator previously contracted by IPID to investigate Phahlane, told Daily Maverick that he believes Mahlangu was assassinated.

Two former high-ranking IPID officials have warned that the suspensions of Sesoko and the others carry the hallmarks of political interference aimed at thwarting the police watchdog’s investigation of alleged corruption within police management.

“The real reason behind any suspension would be to purge [former IPID head Robert] McBride’s people. Sesoko presents a real danger to senior police officers close to Cele and to Cele himself,” said one former official.

Sesoko’s backers believe that an incoming head of investigations will be manipulated, at the behest of Cele, to scupper IPID’s ongoing “blue lights” investigation in which other senior police officers are apparently soon to be charged.

Setshedi did not respond to a query from Viewfinder which relayed this concern. An IPID statement on Monday indicated that Sesoko’s position has already been filled in an acting capacity.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Mathapelo Peters responded to queries about whether Cele had any involvement in the decision to suspend Sesoko and others.

“I can confirm that the Minister of Police, General Bheki Cele, was made aware of the developments relating to the implementation of the AGSA (Auditor General of South Africa) recommendations [the suspensions], and at the same time, I need to emphasise that the Minister is not at liberty to comment on administrative issues, in this instance matters concerning employer-employee relations,” she said.

The suspensions also come at a delicate time in a broader policy debate at IPID. In February, former acting head Victor Senna told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Policing that management would modify performance targets to improve the directorate’s overall impact on police conduct and accountability. This commitment came in response to a series of recommendations by the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF).

APCOF director Sean Tait remains optimistic.

“The suspension of two key management positions [Senna was replaced as executive director and Sesoko was suspended] comes at a crucial time for IPID when its performance and reporting have been questioned by Parliament. This has provided the directorate with an opportunity to reflect substantively on the need for case prioritisation and better impact assessment,” he said.

“As APCOF we hope that this constructive conversation can continue with new management.”

According to IPID’s statement, Sesoko and others were suspended in line with recommendations of an AGSA management report of 2019. The statement did not elaborate on what these recommendations were and IPID did not respond to a follow-up query requesting clarification. Yet, from a copy of the report obtained by Viewfinder, it appears that the suspensions may relate to allegations of irregular expenditure at IPID.

Such allegations were also the subject of a Public Protector investigation into Sesoko and other IPID officials. The Public Protector’s report, published in September 2019, recommended that IPID take remedial action, including disciplinary steps against Sesoko and others. But the implicated officials filed papers with the North Gauteng High Court requesting an interdict against the remedial action and in October the court suspended the remedial action. This, Sesoko’s backers argue, precludes IPID from suspending him and other officials on the basis of AGSA or Public Protector recommendations.

McBride has also previously pointed to a Public Service Commission (PSC) report which, he said, found the allegations upon which the Public Protector’s investigation was premised to be “unsubstantiated”. Viewfinder was not able to independently access this PSC report to verify those findings.

For Sesoko, the lead up to his suspension last week will be reminiscent of 2015. In March of that year, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko suspended McBride – then head of IPID – and replaced him with Israel Kgamanyane. Kgamanyane, in turn, suspended Sesoko a few weeks later.

Sesoko and McBride maintained that they were casualties of political interference, aimed at undermining IPID’s corruption investigations, by the police minister. Sesoko testified at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture in September last year that he had deduced that Nhleko ordered Kgamanyane to suspend him.

In September 2016, the Constitutional Court found that McBride’s suspension was unlawful and set it aside. McBride returned to work and reinstated Sesoko.

The machinations of 2015, the appointment of Setshedi and the subsequent suspension of Sesoko, all relate to a long standing debate around the police minister’s legislated powers over the appointment of IPID’s head. IPID’s head, in turn, has power over appointments and suspensions within the rest of the organisation.

In February 2019, Cele did not renew McBride’s contract as IPID head. That decision prompted a court challenge from McBride and an application from the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) to be admitted as “a friend of the court”. In his founding affidavit, HSF director Francis Antonie argues that the decision about the renewal of the IPID head’s contract should not be made by the police minister nor any “political actor”, so as to safeguard the “institutional and operational independence of IPID”. McBride has since suspended his court bid, but the HSF has brought a new case which is scheduled to be heard in the Supreme Court of Appeals later this year. The court has requested the HSF to submit its founding affidavit by 17 March.

The IPID Executive Director position has been vacant since Cele’s non-renewal of McBride’s contract, with first Senna and then Setshedi appointed by Cele to fill it in an “acting” capacity. When Cele failed to meet the deadline to appoint a new head last month, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Policing urged him to expedite the process.

In a joint submission to the Zondo Commission last year, Corruption Watch and the Institute for Security Studies warned that the appointments of “certain compromised people” to key positions in the criminal justice system had ensured that “politically connected individuals enjoy impunity against investigation and prosecution”.

Corruption Watch submitted a proposal to the PCP in November that encouraged Parliament and the Minister to commit to “an appointment process that is transparent, set against merit-based criteria, and encourages public participation in recruiting the next executive director of IPID.”

Correction: After publication the quote from Sean Tait was made explicit to read: [Senna was replaced as executive director and Sesoko was suspended]

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