Former state security minister Bongani Bongo was arrested by the Hawks on Thursday and appeared in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court before being released on bail.
He was accused of interfering in a state capture inquiry at Eskom in 2017, when he allegedly offered a bribe to Advocate Ntuthuzelo Vanara who was leading evidence at the inquiry. The apparent purpose of the bribe was to deep-six the inquiry.
Bongo shot from obscurity in Mpumalanga to sitting ANC MP in the last three years. He got the call from former President Jacob Zuma in October 2017, offering him the role of minister of state security – a key position that gave him unrivalled intelligence on Zuma’s enemies.
He had been investigated by the Hawks for alleged corrupt land transactions in Mpumalanga, during his time as legal advisor in the provincial government, according to City Press.
Land valued at R55m allegedly sold for R124m
The Hawks claimed he drafted the contracts for the purchase of several farms by the Mpumalanga human settlements department, which ended up paying R124 million for land that was valued at just R55 million. The land conveyancer reportedly then transferred R300 000 to BMW Sandton as a deposit for a vehicle purchased in the name of Bongo’s brother.
Given his history of dubious dealings, many were shocked when he was appointed as recently as June this year as chair of the National Assembly’s portfolio committee on home affairs.
He was one of a string of Zuma loyalists linked to the Guptas and state capture who now head up parliamentary committees.
Many of them must now be wondering when the Hawks will come knocking on their doors.
The Hawks are reportedly about to pounce on several more officials over a R630-million toilet tender fraud in the Eastern Cape. Independent Media reported that Goodman Ntandazo Vimba, CEO of the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent, will appear in court next February after being released on bail this week. He is one of ten people expected to face arrest for the tender irregularities.
But by far the biggest fish caught in the Hawks’ net so far is Bongo.
The ANC has declined to take action against him as the matter is still before the courts, but Bongo has levelled accusations against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan as the man behind his arrest – a claim rejected by Gordhan.
We can get some sense of the man from the ‘High-Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency (SSA) and Related Matters’, published in December 2018. It is clear this agency was the source of untold friction in the country and the ruling party.
The report does not cite Bongo by name, but this can be inferred from his tenure as minister of the SSA between August 2017 and February 2018, when he was removed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. He was known to be close to the Guptas and held a crucial position of power in an agency that had been commandeered in the service of waging war on Zuma’s enemies.
Bongo was the latest in a long line of Zuma loyalists to occupy the position. Current Deputy Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, David Mahlobo, was his predecessor and is said to have initiated an inquiry into whether former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who was herself investigating state capture at the time, was a spy.
“It is astonishing that Bongo still occupies a position in the home affairs portfolio committee,” says Thami Nkosi of Right2Know. “The ANC has been rolling the dice on corrupt Zuma-era members, hoping the noise dies down. That doesn’t seem to be happening. I think what might be unfolding here is a gradual purge of Zuma loyalists.
“It’s a good sign that the Hawks are going after Bongo, but he is low-hanging fruit. There are bigger fish to catch in the ruling party.”
The review panel found the SSA was subject to political interference, and often ended up as a pawn of the ruling party, rather than serving the intelligence needs of the country. The agency became politicised over a period of ten to 13 years and “has become extensively embroiled in the politics and factionalism of the ruling party,” says the report.
One of the questions the panel investigating the agency considered was whether SA needed a minister of intelligence at all.
This has been discussed for the better part of two decades, and was considered necessary to drive transformation in the intelligence services. The transformation drive has been a remarkable success, to the point where the agency became a tool of a faction within the ruling party. And Bongo squatted in the middle of this.
It started with the hoax email saga in 2005 when elements within the National Intelligence Agency (NIA, which has since been subsumed into the SSA) advanced bogus intelligence in the form of emails and chat messages suggesting a conspiracy against then-deputy president Jacob Zuma. Despite this being debunked by the Inspector-General of Intelligence (IGI), elements within the ANC refused to believe the IGI.
Factionalism became rife when Zuma took over as president, and the influence of the Guptas started to bleed from their home in Saxonwold to the highest office in the land – and just about everything in between.
The Oath of Allegiance that SSA members are expected to take requires members to swear allegiance not just to the Constitution and the laws of the country, but also to the president. It further requires them to “recognise the authority of the Minister of State Security”.
‘Temporary advances’ were like ATMs
The report suggests that financial controls in the SSA were loose, as most of the agency’s transactions are done in cash to hide their origin. Cash disbursements are made by a system of ‘temporary advances’ and agents are supposed to return unused amounts and reconcile the transaction before applying for a new one. But this appears to have been widely abused. Even where agents were required to settle temporary advances by deducting from their salaries, the amounts were so large (running into millions of rands) in some cases that they could not realistically be settled. Others left the agency before they could settle what they owed.
An amount of R17 million was stolen from a safe at the SSA in 2015, but the culprits were not brought to book – despite being identified by video.
Civil society groups Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), Right2Know and Corruption Watch have welcomed Bongo’s arrest.
“Bongo was put in charge of the State Security Agency by Jacob Zuma to keep an eye on intelligence gathering and to spy on Zuma’s opponents,” says Nkosi. “We know that Zuma was handed an intelligence report suggesting there were people in the ANC who were intent on staging a revolt. This was a case of using state resources to do the ANC’s dirty work.
“Under Bongo’s tenure, the SSA was co-opted as an organ of a faction of the ruling party, to the neglect of the national interest.”
Says Outa CEO Wayne Duvenage: “We’re following the [case of Bongo’s arrest] with interest, as we are following all cases where the rule of law is unfolding against others in authority who have been involved in corruption. This matter and others unfolding now and into the future is significant to instilling confidence into SA’s future and the need for accountability.”
The fact that Bongo is a sitting ANC MP is a positive development, as his arrest would not have happened in the Zuma era, adds Duvenage. This gives the country confidence that the rule of law is able to flow without political interference.
“There can surely be no more heinous act of political corruption than a sitting MP and cabinet minister offering a bribe to an officer of parliament, specifically in order to undermine parliament’s core function of holding the executive to account. If Bongo is convicted we trust he will face the full might of the law,” said David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch.
“While we welcome the Hawks’ investigation and prosecution of Bongo, the real hero is Advocate Vanara, a true officer of the court and a person of integrity,” Lewis said. “The institution that comes out worst in this whole sordid saga is the governing party, the ANC. Bongo already had this massive cloud hanging over him when he was placed on the ANC parliamentary list. Salt was then rubbed into the wound by making him chair of the important Home Affairs portfolio committee.”
There are many more like him serving in parliament, said Lewis, and they too should be removed.