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Sunday Times STLive By Phylicia Oppelt , 2012-04-08

Strange case of the spy boss who was let off the hook

Phylicia Oppelt is the editor of The Sunday Times
Image: Sunday Times

Putting cops with shady and contested reputations in control of our safety and security is a mistake we will come to regret

IT'S been a soap opera of politics this week, with Jacob Zuma sitting with his top five ANC execs - some of whom clearly wished to be anywhere but in front of the television cameras - being paraded in a show of strength against the avalanche of disrespect from Julius Malema and his youth leaguers.

But while we watch the high drama at Luthuli House - the power play between Big Daddy Zuma and his misbehaving son, Juju - there are some terrible things happening in South Africa.

A week ago, we were met with a terse announcement that Richard Mdluli had been reinstated to the SA Police Service as intelligence chief - after facing murder and fraud charges in two separate cases.

This is the man who allegedly conducted a campaign of terror on Gauteng's East Rand in the 1990s and who has since been accused of having behaved with dishonour and impropriety as spy boss.

But last week's news of his reinstatement came with the instruction that the matter would not be open for public discussion.

And so, in the midst of a Zuma "fightback" manoeuvre, the triumphant Mdluli must be conveniently forgotten, even as the conspiracy theories abound as to why he is so powerful as to sidestep the considerably damaging charges against him.

What should one make of a 12-page document that details a frightful array of allegations against him? It is a chronicle of graft, abuse of power, nepotism and open looting of the police's secret fund meant to pay informers and support clandestine operations.

The report reads like a work of fiction, exposing the activities of corrupt cops and an inner circle in the police making themselves guilty of a shocking abuse of power.

There are many others accused of eating from the slush fund for which Mdluli was ultimately responsible. A "prominent KwaZulu-Natal person" is a regular recipient of the state's largesse, flying with family more than 50 times and making regular cash demands from the fund, usually R50000 a pop.

With Mdluli's reinstatement, many questions will now remain unanswered.

His innocence or guilt will never be tested in court. The prosecutor who brought graft charges against him has since been suspended with the most pitiful of excuses.

The police officials who offered information and who stood up to Mdluli because they felt it was the right thing to do - in spite of considerable fear of retribution - are left with the very real concern of becoming the victims of revenge.

But this matter, we are told, must not and will not be discussed. A decision has been made, and we must live with the bitter aftertaste and uneasiness that we have been short-changed in the most underhand manner. We have been told, in no uncertain terms, to shut up and mind our own business.

In the absence of public discourse, are we then to assume that Mdluli is such a powerful figure in the police - perhaps holding damaging secrets of others - that he cannot be tested in a court of law? But there are others - more senior than Mdluli - who should be explaining the strange case of a spy boss who was let off the hook without even a vaguely reasonable explanation.

Where were our national police commissioner and police minister in all of this when Mdluli apparently acted with impunity? Nathi Mthethwa told a reporter a while ago that he had not benefited from the slush fund. Why did he find it necessary to state his innocence?

This week, however, he managed to find time to lash out at Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza, who criticised the current ANC leadership in his company's annual report. But what of Mdluli, a senior official in Mthethwa's department? Does the minister's silence indicate an approval of his subordinate's behaviour?

Then there is the special relationship between our president and the copper from Vosloorus. Mdluli had written a report into an alleged internal ANC coup attempt, with Tokyo Sexwale being a key player. Zuma, for whatever reasons, appears to have found truth in the spook report. Is Mdluli's freedom another indication of Zuma's gratitude and high esteem?

That Mdluli has, while facing such shameful accusations, managed to blithely walk away from answering them represents a dangerous space in South Africa, particularly when he is being touted as the next police commissioner.

But, then again, special relationships between SA's police chiefs and presidents - however incomprehensible to the rest of us - seem to be a recurring pattern.

The Mdluli affair is, without doubt, a shameful and utterly regrettable episode. Putting cops with shady and contested reputations in control of our safety and security is a mistake that we will surely come to regret.