Glory to the tumbling Hawks


Glory to the tumbling Hawks

The South African Police Service's elite investigative unit, the Hawks, was conceived and born in sin. But it's all we have. ALI VAN WYK writes about a new book on the honourable Hawks officers who still have the guts and gumption for the good fight.


LIKE many people who follow politics with interest, I have always thought of the Hawks, the SAPS Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, as a kind of watered-down and emasculated version of the Scorpions. The Scorpions were the much more powerful Directorate of Special Operations which was disbanded in 2008 by a vote of parliament.

The big difference between the Scorpions and the Hawks is that the Scorpions' commander was the deputy director of public prosecutions. He was therefore a prosecutor, which made them a unit of the National Prosecuting Authority with funding from the minister of justice. The Scorpions had a broad mandate to investigate corruption and organised crime, a proper budget and equipment, and training at some of the best agencies in the world.

With this kind of support and quality staff, and with prosecutors who worked closely with the detectives (and with those turbocharged black VW Golf GTIs), they were  highly effective. I realise these days that one should actually have seen the end of the Scorpions coming from the beginning and spared oneself the disappointment of the naive idealist.

The Scorpions were squarely in the way of the second wave of trough-eating cadres and their barely disguised tenderpreneur cousins, and the cadres weren't going to let them carry on because “[they] didn't struggle to be poor".

It must have been a bitter pill to swallow for the president at the time, Thabo Mbeki, that his own beloved political organisation, while he was still in power, demolished one of his great successes right before his eyes. One of his attempts to stop this was to appoint the honourable and credible judge Sisi Khampepe to investigate the Scorpions amid all the ANC complaints against the unit. The report she compiled was a thorough confirmation of the unit's integrity and legality. Its biggest sin was that it had scratched where it really itched.

The Scorpions made the big cats cringe, especially with investigations intothe arms deal, but the lightning rod was the complaint that an independent investigative unit could not be more powerful than the SAPS. Khampepe easily sidestepped this argument by recommending that the police's mandate should be expanded and their budget adjusted.

The Scorpions were finally disbanded with a vote in parliament on October 23, 2008. Most of the top prosecutors were quickly snapped up by the private sector, most of the detectives were incorporated into the new police unit, the Hawks, and someone picked up a fleet of Golf GTIs for a pittance at auction. The first investigation that ended up in the waste basket was the arms deal probe.

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Are there still good cops in the Hawks?

Every December, when a valued family member gives me Deon Meyer's latest humdinger crime novel, I wonder how realistic his portrayals are of the weary fuzz who still serve the good cause. Members such as Captain Bennie Griesel, Inspector Vaughan Cupido and Colonel Mbali Kaleni. Those police detectives who, despite everything ranged against them — the terrible working conditions, the low pay, the mountains of files, the increase in violent crime, the corruption and misdemeanours among colleagues — still stand firm and wave the good flag.

That's why I picked up journalist Graham Coetzer's new book, Hunting with the Hawks, in an airport bookshop the other day. Here is the real McCoy, I thought. This book will be able to tell me. Even in that moment, I still experienced a dull pain inside me that we no longer have the Scorpions to smoke out the sly and arrogant politicians, and that the Hawks are just the second team.

However, barely a chapter into the book, I saw for the first time what a great disappointment and embarrassment it must have been for the seasoned and elite detectives in the Scorpions to be tossed around like wreckage in the political sea. You meet these people in Coetzer's book, and you realise most of them just swallowed it and went back to their calling, the one of locking up the bad guys.

Coetzer is a veteran crime reporter who spent most of his career as a producer on the investigative TV show Carte Blanche. He deals with one case per chapter, and there are nine chapters. Nine cases solved by the Hawks. He spends a few days with the investigating officers in each case and gets them to relive the experience.

Coetzer is the quintessential investigative journalist, unafraid to enter dangerous criminals' nests. Still, he is not a gonzo character who tries to dress up stories with all kinds of literary techniques. He tells it straight and casually. Most of the stories are so spine-chillingly scary anyway that they need no embellishment.

I got the idea that Coetzer just wanted to give ordinary people a sense of the humanity of the detectives and the inhumanity of the twilight world in which they move. However, the lingering thought after reading the book is how structurally embedded crime and the associated violence is in South Africa, and how it is getting worse,  more complex and even more ingrained.

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Is Nongoloza on the go again?

I have always been fascinated by the alternative communities that arise in South Africa's fragmented society, especially in its shadow worlds. Just over 20 years ago, the historian Charles van Onselen's excellent books about the early days of Johannesburg, New Babylon and New Nineveh, were published in one volume with the subtitle: Everyday Life on the Witwatersrand 1886-1914. It's a fascinating read, believe me; early Johannesburg makes the romanticised Wild West of California look like Waterkloof Ridge.

The chapter that captivated me most was about the so-called Ninevites, a large band of highwaymen who lived in caves in the ridges of the southern Witwatersrand and carried out their attacks from there.

The Ninevites were not just another small gang. They were a people with their own legal system and rudimentary police force, as well as a kind of monarchist government with the legendary figure Nongoloza (Mzuzephi Mathebula) as the king. They also mostly had homosexual sex with younger men, to eliminate the need for women.

I next encountered Nongoloza in Jonny Steinberg's excellent book The Number about the Cape prisons' number gangs — the 26s, 27s and 28s. Retellings of the Nongoloza legend made him the origin myth of the number gangs. Nongoloza is a kind of messiah for the gangs, and their structures also represent a new version of the Ninevites. Even the slang and expressions that developed among the Ninevites found their way into the number gangs.

I was strongly reminded of Nongoloza and his Ninevites in Coetzer's chapter on illegal miners in South Africa, especially the Free State, and specifically the Hawks' investigation at Masimong mine near Welkom. Popular opinion about the zama zamas is that they are a bunch of hungry unemployed miners who sneak around in abandoned shafts on the Witwatersrand, scavenging for leftover ore. This is a very small part of the truth. Coetzer's chapter “Booby traps, explosives, and the underground war" describes the phenomenon well.

Zama zama operations are run by highly organised syndicates and the turnover is counted in billions. In many cases, the zama zamas live in underground villages, often in remote parts of still-working mines. In some cases, a war breaks out between the zama zamas and the mining company, and sometimes there is a danger of the illegals hijacking a mine.

This was the case at Masimong, where a gang lived and worked under the leadership of the formidable and terrifying Lovemore Chaba. This is where I saw the parallels with Nongoloza. I will not be surprised  to read that the legend of Nongoloza has also taken hold as a kind of religion among the zama zamas. Like Nongoloza, Chaba ruled with an iron hand. He operated food supply networks, security, an underground processing plant and miners. He even had his own phone on the legal mine's network, with his own extension.

The astonishing part of it is that the zama zamas did not have their own entrance to the mine — all their operations, which involved trade worth many millions of rand, were carried out using Masimong's single shaft lift.

The saga also shows how the Hawks, in this case under Captain Karin du Plessis, cooperated with private security companies and Harmony Gold's security led by Ernie van Rensburg, former commander of the police gold and diamond branch in Welkom. The dismantling of Chaba's network required time-consuming and meticulous planning and a dangerous closing operation, and the book is worth reading just for this chapter.

The highway robbers

Another distinctive and fascinating community are the networks surrounding the hijacking of cash, either from depots or vehicles. In the chapter “The not so usual suspects", Coetzer describes the task forces that are built by the masterminds for each robbery, tailor-made for the operation ahead.

He describes the biggest cash robbery to date in South Africa, in which a gang stole more than R100 million from a depot in Witbank. The investigating officers were Captain Manie van Zyl and Warrant Officer Paul Holtzhausen, seasoned policemen in the old style.

The composition of the robbery gang was typically modular, like a Lego project. The driver would not know the explosives experts, the explosives experts would not know the soldiers with guns, and the soldiers with guns would not know the carriers. Almost no-one would know the mastermind, except maybe towards the end when the spoils were divided.

It is also a fascinating look at how these gangs recruit collaborators in companies, and how police officers get involved in crime — yes, even seasoned Hawks officers. Coetzer consistently makes the point that organised crime is not possible without the cooperation of elements in the police and insiders in organisations.

In a twist that cannot be described as a surprise, the Hawks' resources have decreased since the Scorpions were disbanded. The buildings they work in are almost all falling apart. Yet officers such as Van Zyl, Holtzhausen and Du Plessis, and many others you meet in this book, fight on every day with their lives under grave threat.

You have to get this book if you are a collector of South African crime non-fiction. It's a good record of cases, some of which barely made it to the media.

* Hunting with the Hawks, by Graham Coetzer, is available on Takealot for R219.


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