Suspensions; notices of suspension; court battles; and speculation over political interference. These are some of the scenarios that have preoccupied the leadership of the priority crime fighting unit, the Hawks, over the past few weeks.

Political and social analysts are even more fascinated – they're crying foul over what they perceive as a strategic purge on yet another law enforcement body whose predecessor, the Scorpions, experienced a similar fate, before it was disbanded in 2009.

The national head of the Hawks, Anwa Dramat, was handed a suspension two days before Christmas last year, pending an investigation into allegations of his involvement in the illegal renditions, or extrajudicial deportations, of Zimbabwean nationals several years ago.

Following the news of his suspension, it was reported that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) had cleared Dramat of the charges after conducting its own investigation. The timing of his suspension, therefore, is what has raised suspicions of possible underhanded motives on the part of the political leadership of the unit, police minister Nathi Nhleko. Dramat and all the senior staff loyal to him, commentators have argued, are in the firing line and over the course of the few weeks following his suspension, more notices of suspension followed.

Wings clipped

Gauteng head of the Hawks Shadrack Sibiya received a second notice of suspension from acting head Benny Ntlemeza, hours after the first was withdrawn just as he prepared to go the Labour Court route on Wednesday. Ntlemeza himself has been reported to be strategically placed to carry out a political agenda.

Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi said: “The reason why we withdrew the first notice of suspension was that the acting head of the Hawks went through Sibiya’s initial reply. He found that Sibiya was saying the first notice did not cover all the aspects of his suspension.”

He added that evidence had been added in the second notice, as Sibiya had argued that it was lacking in the first.

A section head in the Gauteng office, Leslie Maluleke, has also been suspended, while the heads of integrity and finance have both reportedly been shifted to new positions, Eyewitness News reported on Wednesday.

Dramat, Sibiya and Maluleke’s disciplinary action is linked to the same alleged case, that of the illegal renditions. The IPID investigation that cleared Dramat has also cleared Sibiya, it is reported.

Cause for concern

The Times columnist and political analyst Justice Malala responded to the news of Dramat’s suspension by writing: “I have always been suspicious of the Hawks simply because I have never believed that the organisation is sufficiently independent of the executive wing of our government.

“If it were, then why did the ANC move so fast and so ruthlessly in 2008 to get rid of the Scorpions?

“My suspicions were buttressed by the Constitutional Court ruling of November 27 on the independence of the Hawks.”

The ruling that Malala refers to was the result of a case brought forward by businessman Hugh Glenister, for the court to deliberate on the independence of the Hawks. Glenister had previously fought a court battle over the disbandment of the Scorpions, the anti-corruption unit that preceded the Hawks.

It is this common course of events that has had analysts like Malala speculating over what motive exists for the unit to come under fire in this way. In a recent Daily Maverick opinion piece, Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos drew parallels to the presence of political interference in the 2009 disbandment of the Scorpions and what is currently happening with the Hawks.

“Shortly after Jacob Zuma was elected president of the ANC, the ANC-led government abolished the Scorpions anti-corruption unit because it was pursuing more than 700 fraud and corruption charges against the president of the party. It replaced the Scorpions with a toothless body, which it ironically christened the Hawks,” wrote De Vos, giving context to his argument.

“While a neo-patrimonial governing party depends on institutions such as the Hawks, the Public Protector and the judiciary to deal with factional opponents and to legitimise its rule, the dominant faction needs to be able to exert some control over such institutions to protect the members of the dominant faction from some of the consequences of patrimonial politics.”

At the time of its disbandment, the Scorpions unit was headed by Advocate Vusi Pikoli, who had been embroiled in a legal battle to save his job when then-president Thabo Mbeki suspended him and later Kgalema Motlanthe – who was an interim president before Zuma took office – fired him. Pikoli had been in charge of the Scorpions at the time that corruption charges were brought against Zuma. These were dropped under the watch of his acting successor, Mokotedi Mpshe, just before the 2009 elections that saw Zuma become president. Despite the findings of a commission of inquiry that Pikoli was not fit for office, it was widely speculated in the media that his suspension and subsequent dismissal were testament to the political interference in his office.

Civil society group The Helen Suzman Foundation, also part of the fight against the suspension of Dramat, is claiming the unit’s independence is at the core of its credibility and ability to fight crime. The removal of Dramat by Nhleko is unconstitutional as the latter does not have the authority to suspend the former.

Some of the media/social commentators who have publicly observed the developments at the Hawks have had this to say on social media:

@ferialhaffajee:
*Squashed the Scorpions, now de-beaking the Hawks*Another Hawks officer is suspended

@AdriaanBasson:
If the Hawks go, it's the end of corruption-fighting in SA. Tomorrow's hearing about #Dramat suspension is a litmus test for our democracy

@gwalax:
Sounds to me like another police agency has been sacrificed at the hand of political agency.#Hawks

@MandyWiener:
Shadrack Sibiya. Suspended. Not suspended. Suspended. This is ridiculous. How are the Hawks supposed to retain any credibility?

‏@Mabine_Seabe:
The mess that is the Hawks. First the Scorpions were killed, now the Hawks face death at the hands of corrupt politicians.

@zapiro:
Back in July 2009, HAWKS replaced SCORPIONS as SA's elite crime-fighting unit, Who will the HAWKS be replaced by?

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Excerpt
Suspensions; notices of suspension; court battles; and speculation over political interference. These are some of the scenarios that have preoccupied the leadership of the priority crime fighting unit, the Hawks, over the past few weeks.