By Glenn Ashton
The last few years has seen a steady procession of various shady characters from around the world paraded across our headlines and through our legal systems. So is South Africa becoming a sunny place for shady people? To be more precise, are our democratic institutions at risk from infiltration by international criminals and crime networks? Crime and corruption are ancient confederates.
Apartheid South Africa was not only morally corrupt, it was corrupt to its core. Despite denials by non-apologists like F. W. de Klerk that this was the case, the reality was that both petty and grand corruption were ingrained into the system. The Broederbond flourished through corruption. The arms and oil embargoes were cash cows for functionaries and ministers alike, who stashed vast sums in tax havens.
The full extent of this corruption was hidden by apparatchiks who systematically destroyed tens of tons of documents to cover their tracks. Our democratic dispensation was literally founded upon the ashes of apartheid documentation.
It is counter-intuitive that the new democratic state is consistently portrayed as more corrupt and corruptible than the old. However political interference in our security services lie at the heart of our problems. Fortunately, transparency and open reporting has exposed recent corruption far more than was ever possible under apartheid. This has been targeted and is under direct threat by the proposed Protection of State Information Bill.
This is not to say that organised crime and its associated corruption is not a problem. It certainly is. South Africa has increasingly become a haven for international criminals and gangsters and corrupt leaderships, as well as providing an important transit point for international crime. This has critical bearing on national stability, especially in our case as new and evolving states are recognised as being particularly at risk from corruption.
International organised crime is a huge business, estimated to generate more than US$2 trillion per annum, putting criminal enterprise into the top 20 global economies. Cynics suggest that the reason that international crime is not more heavily prosecuted is because it feeds so significantly into the legal economy.
Despite South Africa’s best efforts at statutory reform of the criminal justice system, gaps remain. A raft of legislation has been promulgated, including the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, which focuses on gangs and criminal networks, the Proceeds of Crime Act, the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (FICA – which arguably has had a greater cost and impact on law abiding citizens than denizens) and the International Co-operation in Criminal Matters Act. In spite of these attempts at reform, increasingly savvy and sophisticated criminal networks are extremely adaptable.
Our romantic perceptions of organised crime evoke a picture of Yakuza, Triads, Mafia and other skelms doing their own thing and protecting their turf. The reality is far more fluid, adaptable and amorphous. Research by the Institute of Security Studies shows how these international networks work formally and informally with local criminal networks to trade drugs, motor vehicles, illegal species, people, arms and anything else of value.
This is useful because it provides direct access to corrupt elements within the police, customs and immigrations, as well as politicians, civil servants and of course association with political and business interests. An example is the abalone (perlemoen) trade. This is run by Chinese gangs but local criminal networks not only do the dirty work of diving and transportation but also facilitate it through a counter-trade in drugs and other illicit substances.
It is interesting how the same names repeatedly surface. For instance Cyril Beeka, whose murder remains unsolved, was alleged to have had extensive relationships. Yuri “the Russian” Ulantski, convicted Mafiosi Vito Palozzolo, alleged cape flats “sexy boys” gangsters the Booysen Brothers and Igor “the new Russian” Rassol are all supposedly linked. Beeka was also linked to Mo Shaik and was allegedly responsible for the security of the voting process at the Polokwane Conference that led to Zuma’s consolidation of power. Mo Shaik was then head of the National Intelligence Agency indicating a clear reach across criminal, intelligence and political networks.
Similiarly, Palazzolo has a record of shady links with intelligence operatives and politicians alike. Since he arrived in South Africa under the most peculiar circumstances, Palazzolo has left the flotsam of damaged public servants in his wake. The National Party’s East London MP, Peet De Pontes, was convicted of fraud and racketeering for facilitating Palazzolo's original South African passport and documentation, which consequently disappeared.
National Intelligence operative and Dumisani Luphungela and Presidential investigator Andre Lincoln both ended up being suspended after interacting with Palazzolo. Politician David Malatsi was convicted for corruption by Palazzolo's good buddy Count Augusta, who went on to purchase his Franschoek estate and whose company was linked to the allegedly corrupt sales of helicopters in the controversial arms deal.
These links indicate a disturbing trend. Networks of gangs, nightclubs, drugs, bouncers, smuggling, property transactions, politicians, diamond trading reach deep into the heart of our wonky state intelligence agencies, which have become intimately associated with the present nexus of political power. These are precisely the risks that can undermine our teenage democracy.
So how deeply has the rot penetrated? There is no simple answer. Because political party funding in South Africa remains obscured behind a veil of secrecy, making it a direct channel for legitimised corruption, it is impossible to ascertain who funds our political parties – be they criminal or corporate interests, gangsters or foreign agents. This applies to all of our political parties. This is clearly unacceptable.
Increased political interference in our intelligence services, involving characters with dubious backgrounds, like head of police intelligence services Richard Mdluli and acting head of the Police Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, are equally disconcerting. Professional intelligence services should have clear constraints, mechanisms and safeguards preventing political manipulation and compromise. That each of these individuals has had serious charges dropped against them, under questionable circumstances, raises a whole set of questions. That they are still in office indicates profound, systemic abuse of our security apparatus.
This comes down to the old question of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – who watches the watchers? The erosion and near collapse of our intelligence services, as they engage in internal scrapping and politically inspired jockeying for position, weakens the ability of these organs of state to fight organised crime, with visible and unsavoury consequences.
The corruption of Jackie Selebi and his relationship to alleged gangsters was just a preliminary warning. The suspension of his replacement, political appointee Bheki Cele for dodgy property deals and the subsequent shenanigans around his proposed replacement Mdluli and acting police commissioner Mkhwanazi have far more serious implications. Corruption and organised crime are, as I indicated at the start, intimate bed-fellows.
These problems and conflicts can be traced to political interference in the running of the police and intelligence services and their appropriation to settle political scores. Perhaps Julius Malema’s remark about a dictatorship carries some veracity? Remember that Jacob Zuma had 783 charges against him dropped prior to his ousting of Mbeki.
On top of this we have the unsolved murders of Lolly Jackson, Cyril Beeka, German car tuner Uwe Gemballa, Yuri Ulantski and other dodgy dealers. It is the job of the intelligence services to infiltrate and catch these nefarious operators, not to engage in back-room politics.
Clearly our entire police and intelligence system is under huge strain, with a leadership vacuum at its head. Is our hard won democracy at risk of being subverted by the opportunists of international crime, gleefully exploiting the expanding opportunities resulting from dismal police leadership and internecine squabbling?
These are not theoretical and distant questions; they are immediate and urgent. Political interference in our police force, the precipitate gutting of the scorpions and subsequent lack of any independent oversight of the police have all had devastating impacts on policing. This has filtered right down to local levels, where community policing forums are floundering. The watered-down South African Police Amendment bill provides no solace.
The long hard fight for our democracy is under a real and direct threat. Nepotism, crony political appointments of ill-suited and considered appointments undermine our collective security.
There are solutions to these dilemmas:
Firstly we must prioritise rendering party political funding completely transparent, for all political parties.
Secondly, our security and intelligence services must be returned to a semblance of order and run professionally, by isolating and removing any hint of criminal infiltration or criminality.
Third, we cannot deal with corruption when political interference is implicated in facilitating the very corruption it purports to oppose.
Fourth, we must address the real threat of both international criminal networks and their relationships with local gangs and networks who appear to act with impunity, even respectability.
Lastly, we cannot allow legitimate investment from our emerging trading partners, within and outside BRICS, to facilitate the dubious trade in abalone, shark fins, seal penises, rhino horn, lion bones, ivory, drugs, arms and goodness knows what else.
Criminal infiltration and corruption of our security apparatus is utterly counter-productive if South Africa is to have any hope of breaking the chains of poverty and inequality. This is not what South Africans fought for; it is what they fought against. Perpetuating the corrupt structures of the past will condemn us to helplessly observing history repeat itself.
The alternatives are simple – we either build a better future for all on the foundations of integrity and honesty that drove our transition or enable a descent into anarchy, where communities rely on kangaroo courts and necklacing to solve crimes, while politicians and securocrats facilitate the plunder of our democracy.
We cannot allow political interference in our security apparatus to precipitate South Africa toward becoming yet another sunny place for shady people, another failed, corrupt narco-state.
Editor's note: This article was corrected on 4 May 2012. It originally stated that politician Peter Marais was convicted of corruption. He was in fact acquitted. It also incorrectly identified Andre Lincoln as a National Intelligence agent. Lincoln is currently with the SA Police Services.
Glenn Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society.
This article originally appeared on the The South African Civil Society Information Service website on 2 May 2012.