Table Talk

There's a new sheriff in town, and his name is Godfrey Lebeya

From growing up in a Limpopo village, to heading the police's most powerful investigations unit, Lt Gen Godfrey Lebeya - the man with the unenviable task of making the Hawks fly again - has plans to root out the rot and stop politicians interfering in investigations

09 September 2018 - 00:02 By GRAEME HOSKEN and QAANITAH HUNTER


His eyes twinkle and a smile forms as he contemplates the question: "How will you do it?"
Former deputy national police commissioner Seswantsho Godfrey Lebeya has not even been in office for 100 days.
Those he commands are battered and bruised. Morale is at rock bottom. Resources, including vehicles, are either nonexistent or so outdated that they are falling apart. Perceptions of corruption within the Hawks are rising.
The minions and masters of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma have done their damage.
Scores of investigators who pursued suspects regardless of their connections are gone. The Hawks are a pale shadow of what was once a beacon of hope in the fight against organised crime.
Lebeya, 57, an advocate, knows all about bruising battles. In 2014 he survived a lengthy legal onslaught by the then national police commissioner Riah Phiyega, who tried to remove him from his post as deputy national commissioner in charge of priority crimes and force him into early retirement.
Lebeya was not then, and is not now, ready for retirement.
"The only time I will relax is when my contract ends in seven years," he says.
"When I relax now it is by reading lengthy reports at home, those I didn't get a chance to read at the office. Besides, I love this job. I love fighting crime, especially organised crime and corruption. I have a passion for it."
With a doctorate in criminal law, specialising in organised crime, Lebeya - who was appointed in June - is an old-school detective.
He knows a crook when he sees one. He knows how to see through spin, deceit and deception, especially when it comes to fraudsters. The area that fascinates him most is commercial crime investigation.
"When I first walked past the commercial crimes unit in John Vorster Square [now Johannesburg Central Police Station] in 1987 and saw the detectives there, I thought: 'That is what I really want to do.' "
He does not deny that turning the Hawks around is going to be extremely tough. "But I am tough," he says.
"There has been turbulence and troubles within the Hawks, but that has to stop. And I'm going to stop it. I have been fighting corruption and bribery since I was a constable. My belief has always been that if we are clean, we will be able to do more."
SMALL BODY, BIG AMBITION
His 34-year policing career, which has been filled with battles and challenges, has prepared him for the task.
Lebeya, who is renowned for his anti-corruption stance, says what drives him is the desire to protect the public and make a difference.
This has been his mission since the day in May 1984 when he first put on his oversized uniform and took his oath of office at a police station in the then Northern Transvaal town of Pietersburg, now Polokwane in Limpopo.
"Back in those days I was not well-built. In those days, body size was important if you wanted to join the police. When I stepped forward for my uniform a constable took a tape measure to my chest and said, 'Nee, hy's te klein.' Another officer looked at me and said I would do."
It had taken Lebeya two years to get to that point. Again his ambition was fired by seeing other policemen at work.
"When I matriculated, I went to live in Stinkwater outside Pretoria with a friend and his family. The day I arrived by train I saw the Hammanskraal police college and thought: 'I will go to police school and become a policeman.' "
He was turned away from the college, however, and told he had to first register at a police station. Here he encountered more obstacles. The officers at the police station needed a range of official documents from him. These were at his home in rural Limpopo and he had no money to go and fetch them. So he had to take up other work until he could save enough to be able to collect and submit all the documentation.
"I had to work hard. I did whatever I could. I became a builder, a welder, a well-digger and a bricklayer. I was determined. I saved my money. Eventually I returned home and got all the papers. I thought that would be all I would need.
"But the police wanted more. I had to work and save for another year before I could return home to apply for and get the last of my documents."
Finally enrolled in police college, Lebeya was an outstanding student, coming top of his graduation class. He said the long, hard road to getting accepted made him determined not only to succeed but to excel.
"I knew if I did not study hard I would not make it. I was not going to let them kick me out of the college."
IN AT THE DEEP END
His first posting was to Hillbrow, where he says he thrived. "I loved it. I was in this busy police station in a charge office. I had never seen so many different people before in one day, all wanting help."
His skill at taking statements was soon spotted by his superiors, who posted him to the detective branch where at first he worked in the docket filing room.
"It was there that I fell in love with investigations. I read every statement in every closed docket that I could find. I could not read enough … fraud, murders, robberies. I wanted to learn how these detectives worked. I wanted to be one."
Voted the best detective student in 1987, Lebeya says he had no doubt by then that "I wanted to spend my entire life catching crooks".
The first case he solved led to the conviction of a school principal who defrauded the education department. It sounds mild by today's standards, but Lebeya says it was a defining moment for his career.
"I will never forget it. The principal said he had a matric certificate, but in fact he did not."
Lebeya may have moments when he wonders how he got to where he is now, but says he had a premonition of his achievements in two separate dreams, "one that I would be a general and one that I would be an advocate".
"In those days I thought the highest rank you could get as a black policeman was colonel. When I had those dreams I decided I would name my first-born General and my last-born Advocate. It was to remind me that maybe one day I could be a general and an advocate and to honour them if I achieved these positions."
Having a police officer as a father or husband is not always easy, but Lebeya says his family have always been supportive.
"When I got married I was a policeman. When my children were born I was a policeman. My wife and children know that being a policeman is my calling. They know I would still do this work even if it I had to be a volunteer. My family have always been behind and right next to me. Their support helps me do my job."
His new job, however, will be more demanding than any task he has yet undertaken.
"They say it takes six months to get into the swing of things. But we simply don't have six months. We want the Hawks to get back to where they were in 2011, when the unit was at its pinnacle in terms of success rates."
Lebeya, who helped with the amalgamation of the former Scorpions and the police organised crime units in 2009, says he has made a searching analysis of what needs to be done at the Hawks.
"I have been assessing to ensure that I am not misdirected in my approach. I don't want to mess with things that are working while leaving alone things that are not.
"I am now implementing. Where changes are needed, they will be made. We have to get this right. Lives depend on it."
STAUNCHING THE BRAIN DRAIN
Lebeya says his first task is to stop the critical drain of human resources and bring back the 104 highly specialised officers who have been lost to the Hawks.
"We have agreements with other government departments to help us with investigative capacity while we rebuild," he says.
He has also been suspending senior officers perceived to be compromised and those dogged by allegations emerging from judge Raymond Zondo's state capture inquiry. Lebeya plans to be proactive in testing and responding to all allegations.
"We are not waiting for the commission to make its recommendations. I am not here to play about and I am certainly not waiting for my first 100 days to pass before I act.
"If we want this unit to be elite again then this machine must be turned around."
Speedy action is also needed to address dwindling and poor-quality resources, especially vehicles. Lebeya's team needs to overhaul how investigations are done as well as address public perceptions of corruption and political meddling in investigations.
DON'T EXPECT FAVOURS
"These are key points," he says. "My assurances to the public are that there will be no political meddling."
Politicians can forget about asking him to drop a case, he says.
"The stance I take is that the only one who can withdraw a complaint is the complainant, and the only one who can decide not to prosecute is the prosecutor. I am not in the business of withdrawing or dropping dockets.
"We have a constitutional mandate to deal with crime and I will not allow someone to tell us how to do our jobs. The benefit of being a lawyer is that I know what we are supposed to do and what we legally can do to fight and deal with crime."
Transparency and trust are two of his most pressing concerns.
"The public must know that when allegations are made against our members, these will not be investigated by the Hawks themselves but by independent bodies. That is the only way such matters can be dealt with.
"If the allegations are sufficient to constitute an investigation, we act. We are already acting, without fear or favour. We are doing what the law and the constitution expect of us."
His goal is to staff the Hawks with people who are beyond reproach.
"If we are to make the Hawks work, we cannot afford to allow ourselves to be compromised, otherwise we are doomed," Lebeya says.
"We are doing what we need to do to get rid of the rot. There is no place for corruption here.
"I always tell my members that corruption is not a subject that is taught at police college. If they want to be corrupt they must find another job and then be prepared for the Hawks to come and catch them."

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