Former police commissioner Bheki Cele shows support to the members of the organised crime unit 'hit squad' who appeared in court on 71 charges. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Members of Cato Manor’s Organised Crime Unit appear to be in further trouble, with the state set to add 16 murder charges to their 71-charge rap sheet.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) this week said it believed the state had a strong case against the disbanded alleged police hit squad.

“I can confirm that 16 charges of murder will be added, among others of defeating the ends of justice, such as tampering with crime scenes, manipulating them and planting guns,” directorate spokesman Moses Dlamini said yesterday.

National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga confirmed that numerous additional charges would be added – including those related to the murder of taxi boss Bongani Mkhize and the killing of suspects who were wanted for the murder of policeman Superintendent Zethembe Chonco.

Chonco, who commanded the Taxi Task Team under the Organised Crime Unit, was killed in an ambush in 2008. Seven suspects wanted in connection with Chonco’s murder were killed by members of the unit when they allegedly resisted arrest.

Mkhize, 44, of Maphumulo, died just three months after he had made an extraordinary high court application calling for police not to kill him. It was reported that he had allegedly opened fire on police while driving on Umgeni Road, Durban in February 2009.

Officers from the Cato Manor organised crime and national intervention units reportedly returned fire and Mkhize was killed.

Mkhize, whose family has launched a R2.3 million lawsuit against the police for damages, had claimed that he was being sought by the Durban organised crime unit in connection with Chonco’s murder.

The NPA’s Mhaga said: “This is a broad investigation that has three legs. We’ve been dealing with the criminal gang throughout the bail application. Now we’re moving to taxi violence incidents that led to the deaths of Mkhize, Chonco and others.

“Then we’ll move to the deaths of those believed to be behind ATM bombings. The investigation is still under way in respect of that.

“The fact that we have indictment in the first court appearance… that should tell you that we have a strong case.”

A source familiar with the work of the multi-pronged task team which made the arrests said, “We believe we have a very strong case.

“The state is ready to proceed with the prosecution. That decision would not have been made out of flimsy evidence.”

Despite facing serious charges, members of the unit were hailed as heroes by placard-wielding well-wishers during their bail hearing this week – a move that has not gone down well with the families of the victims.

Asked if the officers’ release on bail could be seen as a victory, defence attorney Carl van der Merwe said: “We see it as justice being done. We’ll only know once we’ve seen the documents prepared by the state. We haven’t seen the documents to date.

“Once that is possible, then we’ll have a better idea of how things will work out.

“But it’s safe to assume their families were very stressed. Which wife can be happy with her husband being locked up?”

The saga has been widely politicised.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and new Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega appeared to have squared up against axed commissioner Bheki Cele after he expressed support for members of the disbanded Cato Manor unit by showing up in court.

Although publicly distancing themselves from the arrest of the Cato Manor 18, Mthethwa and Phiyega flew to Durban this week to “stamp their authority”.

A police department source said: “They came to Durban to show who is the boss.”

Cele’s move is believed to have caused consternation within the ANC, which earlier this week issued a statement commending the arrest of the Cato Manor 18.

Speaking at a hastily arranged safety and security political committee meeting in Durban, both Mthethwa and Phiyega denied that they had orchestrated the raids, which were carried out in Phiyega’s second week in office.

Phiyega said the timing was purely “coincidental”.

“That perception is unfortunate. This has been an ongoing investigation.”

Although the operation would fall within Mthethwa’s ambit as the police department’s political head, he said he had nothing to do with this week’s arrests.

“I don’t macro-manage the department, but I provide strategic leadership and policy direction. I’m a political custodian of the police department,” Mthethwa said.

In the ministerial committee that he chairs, among other things his role is to “co-ordinate operational and supportive functioning of the various components of the department”.

One regional ANC chairman who has been a vocal proponent of Cele being co-opted back onto the ANC national executive committee said Cele’s support for the officers meant he was challenging Mthethwa.

“It was clear defiance and an undermining of the state security forces by a seasoned ANC cadre.”

University of KwaZulu-Natal political analyst Zakhele Ndlovu said Cele’s public appearance was in bad taste.

“The ANC, particularly in KZN, has made a decision that he needs to be accommodated. This makes him, as a leader of the ANC, look bad. It comes across as though he’s trying to undermine the legal process.

“As a senior member of the ANC, he should be exercising more restraint and political maturity.

“It says something about his level of political maturity. Zuma signalled he would help him get another position, so he should be taking it easy now.”

Cele defended his decision to support the beleaguered cops this week, saying he was doing so as an ordinary member of the public.

“We are talking here about a dedicated group of crime fighters who have repeatedly put their lives in danger to give you and I the assurance that ‘nobody will murder you in your sleep tonight. Nobody will attack you at your workplace tomorrow. Not on our watch’,” he said.

Provincial ANC secretary Sihle Zikalala said in a statement this week: “We do not support them, we welcomed their arrest. The law must take its course. We cannot interfere and we subscribe to the presumption of innocent until proven otherwise.”

Although he declined to comment on Cele’s support for the accused, Zikalala conceded, however, that he and chairman Zweli Mkhize were in “constant contact” with Cele.

KZN Hawks boss Major-General Johan Booysen was conspicuously silent over this week’s arrests and failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.

DA provincial leader Sizwe Mchunu hailed the arrests, saying his party had no time for criminal cops.

“Any police officer found guilty of a crime must face the harshest penalties possible, and equally so if a case has been driven for motives other than the fight against crime.

“Should these officers be found innocent, then those behind their arrests must equally face the harshest penalties possible,” Mchunu said.

Sunday Tribune