Johan Booysen’s hard truths about the SAPS


Johan Booysen’s hard truths about the SAPS

The former head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal resigned early from the police in 2017 after a relentless campaign to get rid of him when his investigations moved too close to the Zuma inner circle. ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to him about the scars left by that time, how the police can be straightened out and his new job at Fidelity ADT.


I MEET former general Johan Booysen in a Kalk Bay coffee shop. He didn't like Pretoria and he and his wife now live happily in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. The hardcore former head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal wears a cheerful blue checked shirt, yellow trousers and sandals.

These days, Booysen is the head of investigations at Fidelity ADT, the security colossus. He accepted the post seven years ago, a day after he left the police and six months before his 60th birthday.

It took five years of relentless effort to drive him out of the police — a brutal campaign of lies and misinformation that began with a front-page report in the Sunday Times saying organised crime units under his command in Cato Manor and Port Shepstone were behind 45 extrajudicial killings. The term “death squad" was a headshot to his long and proud police career, during which he was named KZN's top police officer while leading the Durban murder and robbery unit.

Shortly after this front-page bombshell, 116 charges were brought against him and 26 of his officers. The court found that there was no case to answer for and withdrew the charges. But the smear campaign continued, as did the investigations, renewed court cases, and dirty tricks. He kept fighting back and won every time. Until he finally decided to retire six months early, and so with 40 years of service under his belt, he quit.

Hard school

I ask if those five years have left scars; five years of warfare with his nemesis, then police commissioner Riah Phiyega, and later with the head of the Hawks, Berning Ntlemeza — a man he describes as a “clown".

Booysen thinks for a moment.

“I come from a hard school," he says.

“The police service of my time was tough. There was discipline. There was respect for hierarchy. It is not nearly the same today. And that stuff made a guy pretty hard, not blunted but hard. But yeah, anyone who's been through what we've been through and says it hasn't left a scar is being dishonest with themselves."

He reminds me that after he left the police, “they" still brought cases against him. He refers to the then head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shaun Abrahams, who in 2016 renewed the case against him and his 26 colleagues even though a court had found in their favour. Abrahams was a Zuma lackey. Booysen calls him an “idiot."

The new head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shamilla Batohi, withdrew the charges. “In the end we were exposed to this witch-hunt for eight years because I refused to stop my investigations into sensitive criminal cases."

In 2019, Booysen testified before the Zondo Commission. What had happened to them, he says, was for one reason only: he had refused to stop investigating people in the inner circle of then-president Jacob Zuma.

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Missing the police?

Booysen orders “filter coffee with milk". He drinks slowly. After a while, the coffee is cold, but he still takes a sip now and then.

I want to know if he misses his days as a policeman.

“I've been asked that question a lot. My answer is unequivocal — what I would have missed no longer exists. The police that was working when I was there no longer exists."

He says the term of Phiyega, a social worker with no police experience appointed as a commissioner by Zuma in 2012, was disastrous. The commission of inquiry into the Marikana mine massacre later found that she did not have the necessary “integrity or leadership" to do the job.

“Her predecessor. Jackie Selebi, of course, also had his faults with his involvement in corruption, but the person who finally broke the police is Riah Piyega. And at the Hawks, it was completed with the appointment of Berning Ntlemeza after Phiyega managed to force out the Hawks chief, Anwa Dramat."

Crazy meeting

He recounts a meeting with Phiyega after the court found there was no case against him.

“She told me she would not let me return to my KZN post. I said, ‘I'm going'.

“‘So, you're not going to obey my instruction,' she then wanted to know. I said, ‘That's not what I said. I am saying that if you transfer me, I will take you to court.' The woman did not understand that there was a ruling from the Constitutional Court that the command of the Hawks had to be taken away from the national commissioner. Anwa Dramat, my commander, was with me at that meeting. I then told her the only person who had the authority to transfer me was Dramat. She looked at me with big eyes … and Dramat said he agreed with me. And then all hell broke loose.

“I said, ‘I'll be back in my office tomorrow morning,' and walked out. From outside, I could hear her screaming at Dramat. On the way back, he and I stopped at a McDonald's to figure out what was happening. He told me Phiyega wanted to know from him ‘what makes Booysen tick'. I told him, ‘Tell her what makes me tick is to leave me to do my work. That's all I want.'"

But that wasn't what happened. A few months later, Phiyega dragged him to a disciplinary hearing, where he faced three senior advocates. The hearing lasted six months, and the result was a rosy finding in Booysen's favour.

“If I ever applied for a job, I would put the verdict of that hearing on my resumé," he laughs.

“The internal investigation ended in a eulogy for me. They said it would be wrong not to allow me to return to my job immediately. And added, ‘let him do what he does best, which is to fight crime'."

The finding angered Phiyega. Her next move was to transfer him or get him to accept a golden handshake.

“I was 57 at that stage. Retirement age is 60. She arrived at the meeting with the HR (human resources) person and thought I was going to fall for it. But I told her ‘offer not accepted'. She exploded. Why not? She wanted to know. ‘Because I'm still reasonably young, and I can still make an impact on crime, which seems to be out of control.’ And then she exploded because I said crime was out of control."

A few months later, Booysen received a letter from Phiyega in which she informed him of her intention to fire him. “I turned to the courts to obtain an interdict against her." 

But this was not the end of the matter. “The first thing that Ntlemeza did after his appointment was to suspend me. The court found my suspension to be illegal. Ntlemeza appealed this decision."

New post

By this time, Booysen had received several good offers from the private sector. When Ntlemeza announced his intention to appeal the latest court decision that had cleared him for the second time, he decided it was time to leave. “I knew he would not be successful, but by the time the appeal reached court, my service period would have ended."

“I contacted the police's legal services and said, ‘that golden handshake you wanted to give me three years ago …' they couldn't sign it soon enough," he says. “But not before I got a few of my conditions written into it." 

“I finished on February 28th. On March 1st, I started at Fidelity ADT as national head of investigations."

Booysen likes his new job. His role initially focused on cash-in-transit robberies but has slowly expanded to include all investigations for the company of more than 55,000 employees. He has a formidable team of investigators—almost all seasoned ex-policemen who have risen through the ranks of specialist units and are highly trained.

Liaising with the police and the Hawks is part of his job, and his excellent relationship with Police Minister Bheki Cele has been handy.

“I know Cele from KwaZulu-Natal. The first time I met him was after the massacre of 18 people at Shobashobane in 1995. He was there for the ANC and chased me and another general away from the scene because there was talk that the police were involved. However, our relationship improved later when he became the MEC for safety and security in the province. My units did very well; at one stage, I was invited to the annual MEC awards evening. I made some excuse not to go because I hate that stuff. I don't like speeches. It's like an aerobics class: sit, stand, sit, stand.

“At 11 pm that evening, I received a call from my boss, General Pat Brown, and he says, ‘Johan, where were you tonight? I had to accept the policeman of the year trophy n your behalf.' Slaan my om met 'n nat vis. (Hit me with a wet fish)," he laughs. “An award from Bheki Cele."

Police broken

“Using the word ‘disaster' for the police is a euphemism," says Booysen. “‘Eviscerated' is closer to the truth of the damage to structures and institutional memory with the dissolution of the specialist units. Booysen says the current police commissioner, Fannie Masemola, whom he knows well, “inherited a broken organisation".

“Building structures and creating institutional memory take decades. It takes years from people with experience, people who go through the processes and people who develop a subculture. Your murder and robbery detective has a certain subculture, your commercial crime detective has a certain subculture. And that stuff is incredibly important to effective policing because it's the foundation of institutional memory.

“Look, Selebi started closing specialist units, and they were replaced with other so-called specialist units: the organised crime unit, the serious violent crime unit and the like. But what has fallen on the wayside are units like the murder and robbery unit, the drug branch (SANAB), endangered species, your gold and diamonds, and your vehicle branches. They don't have the knowledge or the capacity. Stations now have to do the job. It's crazy."

Buying jobs

“They will have to look closely at the promotion policy in the police. The current policy lends itself to corruption, nepotism and cronyism. It's about buying jobs. About cadre appointments, because the police is definitely not apolitical. And it's about ‘baantjies vir boeties’ (careers for brothers), pals, family members, and even lovers. I can personally testify to that. When I was a general and sat on panels for appointments to senior posts — brigadier posts and general posts — we were …  indirectly told ahead of time who the chosen candidate was.

“And I just want to make it clear: this is not an issue of race. There are highly qualified black candidates doing the work that are being overlooked. If you're not part of the inner circle … you can forget it. You will remain a warrant officer or a captain forever. With a few exceptions, nobody is going to convince me that all the senior appointments are on merit. 


“And secondly, it's about training and experience. In our time, the quickest you could become a commissioned officer was five years. And it was accompanied by a diploma or a degree. You would first go to the police college for six months. Then you are a constable for two years before you write your sergeant exam. And then it's two years again before you write your warrant officer exam. And after lieutenant another year. And then you need to complete your diploma or have a degree to qualify to become an officer. There was nothing about automatically becoming an officer. You go through a selection process, and then there's an intensive 13-week officers' course."

And, says Booysen, that focus on training was maintained across the ranks. “If you are promoted to captain, or major, or lieutenant-colonel, or full colonel, or brigadier, or general you must first go on a course again. At the lower end of the ranking structure, the exams are modelled on the Criminal Procedure Act and criminal law, crime methodology, police administration — logistics, finance, and treasury regulations.


Today, you can be a clerk and apply for a captain's position without ever having been to a police college, or worn a uniform, or marched, or studying the law. And just look in the newspapers how many billions the police pay out in civil claims today for wrongful arrest and assaults and stuff like that. This happens when people do not have the necessary legal knowledge.

“The clerk applies for a captain's position, is shortlisted, and becomes a captain within three months. Without having learnt anything about criminal law. Without having written exams on investigation methodology or financial or logistical administration. And without the knowledge that would have been slowly built up over five years. The former provincial commissioner of KZN, Betty Ngobeni, appointed her receptionist as a lieutenant-colonel.

“So one day you're the receptionist at the doctor's office, the next day you're a doctor."

Investigative ability

Booysen also notes that the detectives' investigative capacity has declined rapidly in the past twenty years.

“I know some people think this is a bit of an archaic point, but in our time, you had the uniform department and the detective department at a station. There were the admin staff. And the inquiry staff who handled car accidents and culpable homicide cases. Later, they could become detectives who would investigate more serious cases. The uniform division reported to the station commander, and the detectives had their branch commander. In the set-up, as it now works, where everyone falls under the station commissioner, detectives suck at the rear teat when it comes to the allocation of resources.

“The transfer of knowledge, which is so important, no longer takes place because the knowledge is simply no longer there because the institutional memory is no longer there. Many officers with expertise have left the police because they have been overlooked for promotion. This is especially true for the detective service.

“My advice to the leadership in the police is to seriously and urgently attend to the recruitment of appropriate candidates. There are too many inappropriate people being appointed today. The promotion policy should be revised. Promotion must be based on the necessary knowledge of police administration, crime investigation methodology and the law. Appointments must be transparent. The detective service should be expanded, and detectives should receive special allowances. And, finally, serious attention needs to be given to detective training."

Footnote: Much water has run under the bridge since Booysen went on early retirement in 2017.

In 2021, the minister awarded Booysen the Stella Officii Egregii Gold (SOEG) medal for exceptional service. Racketeering charges have been brought against a former general, two senior police officers, and six other persons based on investigations initiated by Booysen. The former acting head of the national prosecuting authority, Nomgcobo Jiba, was relieved of her duties. At the same time, five prosecutors have had disciplinary charges brought against them for their involvement in Booysen's illegal prosecution. The Constitutional Court also removed Berning Ntlemeza from his position as the Head of the Hawks.

♦ VWB ♦

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