I shall return

Suspended police Major General Johan Booysen is saddling up to fight for his job. By Sue Segar

The day they announced that the Cato Manor unit was closing, there was a huge celebration at Westville Prison. “The people in Correctional Services told me so,” says the suspended KwaZulu-Natal Hawks boss, Major General Johan Booysen.

Booysen...Wheeling and waiting

“A lot of those guys in Westville Prison were put inside by the Cato Manor guys. It was not a popular unit among criminals. They had a huge respect for Cato Manor.

“I firmly believe Cato Manor could still be making a huge difference to the crime situation in KZN. They are one of the best units of all time. Ask the public, ask the business sector.”

Booysen, who was provincial commander in charge of all violent crimes units in KZN – one of which is the now-disbanded serious and violent crimes unit based at Cato Manor – is emerging from a lengthy and traumatic struggle to clear his name and those of his colleagues following the Sunday Times “death squad” exposé and the subsequent closure of the unit.

But now his phone is ringing constantly as well-wishers – colleagues, ordinary citizens, security companies, people from Business Against Crime and from his church – respond to news that the National Prosecuting Authority has abandoned its plans to appeal the high court’s decision that set aside all the charges against him.

“The only other time I had this many calls was four years ago when I was promoted to general. That was the pinnacle of my career.”

A shy man, who blushes easily, Booysen is at pains not to sound “corny or clichéd”. But he does concede that he feels vindicated, when we meet in late March at the Franschhoek home of a cyclist friend – he says he’s been doing some serious cycling in the months since his suspension from the Saps.

“What happened to us is diabolical,” he says of the unit’s closure two years ago and his subsequent suspension.

Recently he has been working intensively with his Durban attorney, Carl van der Merwe, and Cape Town advocate Anton Katz, on a high court challenge to his suspension and planned  action against the Sunday Times.

In between dealing with legal matters he’s been “sitting at home”, keeping himself busy “fixing things”. And cycling. He has done about six races including the Argus since his suspension.

But his wish is to be back at work. “I’ve had to sit by idly, seeing what is happening on the crime front in KZN, with my hands tied. It really irks me.

“The crimes that the Cato Manor guys were responsible for investigating were under control at the time of the unit’s closure. The same can’t be said now. For instance there have been a number of pre-election attacks on political leaders – you only have to read the papers – people have been killed, there have been cash-in-transit heists… We also had a number of ATM explosions in quick succession last month.

“I know that my guys have the intelligence networks and the skills to deal with them, as they have in the past. Those are the sort of cases we would have wrapped up in a week and I know the latest cases have not been solved.”

Far from being ashamed of his unit’s work, he speaks proudly of the unit’s  skills. “One thing the Cato Manor guys had in abundance was human intelligence: information sourced from informers, people on the ground. You cannot be a good detective if you don’t have good informers. In an investigation you have tactical intelligence and human intelligence. That’s where the Americans fell short with 9/11; they had technical intelligence but no human intelligence.”

Booysen’s interest in competitive pistol-shooting has earned him the distinction of being the first general to win a medal in the Saps championships.

Major General Johan Booysen

He says he loves having a braai and watching rugby with friends and spending time with his grown children, who all live in Pretoria.

Booysen has remained loyal to the police. “We even tipped them off about a recent robbery. I love my work and I still meet the Cato Manor guys once every two weeks. Most can’t wait to get back to work, although one or two are fed up with what has happened.”

Booysen is adamant he will clear his name and get his job back; the members of his Cato Manor unit too. There were 30 members, two have died and one has retired. “I will be vindicated and they will be as well.”

“I have not been fired, I was suspended, and obviously I look forward to going back and continuing where we left off. That is what I am planning to do. I want to serve out my career. There is nothing I enjoy more than being a policeman – and I will die a policeman.”

Asked about his philosophy on policing, Booysen says: “If you study police science they tell you in the first year of your studies  that a policeman is from the community for the community. My whole life I’ve liked to help people. I regard myself as an ordinary citizen but policing is a calling and passion.”

Who is Johan Booysen?

Johan Booysen was born in Johannesburg and went to primary school in Vanderbijlpark where his father worked as a fitter and turner. When he was 11, his father was retrenched and the family moved to Amanzimtoti on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast., where he has lived ever since.

Booysen was one of a close family of eight siblings – five brothers and three sisters.

“My dad was an artisan. My mother did not work during my childhood, but later, when we were out of the house, she was a clerk at the Amanzimtoti Police Station until she died. She was 60 when she did her matric.

“We grew up extremely poor. At one stage we were living in my grandmother’s garage, for us it was normal: a curtain divided it into separate rooms. Then, when we moved to Natal, we stayed in a caravan with a tent for a year. There seven kids then! To this day I refuse to sleep in a caravan. If I go on holiday or on a hunting trip with my friends, they all know I want proper ablution facilities and a bed to sleep on.

“But one thing I can say about my dad is that we never went to bed hungry. He always looked after his kids. We always had school clothes, a roof over our heads and food on the table.

“We are all very religious. My parents were real church people. That is what has kept the family together. We grew up as a singing family and attended church every Sunday. I started singing in the church choir at the Old Apostolic Church in Amanzimtoti when I was 13 and have been singing there ever since. I conducted the choir for about 12 years, but gave it up six months ago. I also sang in the Durban Men’s Choir for five years. These days, in church on a Sunday, I am the longest-standing member of the congregation.”

Booysen says his father did not have high expectations of his kids. “He used to say to me, ‘son, just make your matric’. Except when it came to sport, he would really embarrass us. I was an athlete, a sprinter. My dad would stand at the start – and when the gun went off, he would cut across to the finishing post – and by the time you got there he would be hitting the ground screaming.

“Sometimes he would run with us… in relays, you would be standing there trying to concentrate and he would be shouting ‘hier kom hy nou’.

“I always tried to ignore him, but he would grab me. I never got national colours but I was well-known as a short-distance athlete.”

At Kuswag High School in Amanzimtoti, Booysen was “a naughty little bugger, just scraping through” but one  teacher, a Mr Van Wyk, “used to tell me I was not working hard enough and had so much potential”.

He left school in Standard 9 and found a job as a clerk on the railways. “I hated it, and after six months I realised I should have listened to Mr Van Wyk. I decided to go back to school. To start with a clean slate I went to Port Natal Hoërskool, where I got a good matric, but no distinctions.”

Booysen says he had always wanted to be a soldier or a policeman. “I was an avid reader, particularly books about the Second World War and the French Foreign Legion. I sat  glued to the television every Tuesday to watch The World at War.”

Two of his childhood heroes were rugby legend Morné du Plessis and heart surgeon Chris Barnard. Today he loves and admires Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu “in spite of where he comes from and I come from … because, if something is wrong, he doesn’t get caught up in maelstroms … if it is wrong it is wrong and if it is right, it is right”.

Booysen joined the police and was sent to police college in Pretoria in 1977. (He laughs, a little bitterly: “That is where Mr (Mzilikazi) wa Afrika and Mr (Stephan) Hofstatter – the Sunday Times journalists, who first claimed they had uncovered evidence of a hit squad operating under Booysen’s command – say I joined the police in the ‘Soweto riots era’… But I was in Durban. I had nothing to do with the Soweto riots. Why did they have to bring that into it?”

Booysen’s first posting was in his home town of Amanzimtoti. “Seven years as a patrol officer and the detective branch, were followed by two years in Crime Intelligence in Durban – which I didn’t like at all. It was too slow … too much ‘wait and see’.” So he applied for and was sent back to the general detective unit, was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and became branch commander of the Brighton Beach police detective branch, where he did general investigations for three years.

Although the late 1970s and 1980s were times of chaos and conflict in KZN, Booysen says he was fortunate not to have got involved in “those sorts of investigations”.

“If I had, I might not have been where I am today. I was more involved in general crime, the occasional homicide, the odd burglary or vehicle theft, a fraud case… Being a little coastal town, there were just the usual misdemeanours.

“I lived in the area, so I knew all the youngsters. Many of them smoked pot, so we used to play a kind of cat-and-mouse game. They would be hiding the pot, there would be fisticuffs, we would arrest them and we’d go to court...

“Today, I can walk into any club and those same beach bums and dope smokers still greet me and chat – even though I have arrested 90 percent of them at some stage or another for pot! Some even write letters to the media in support of me.”

In the early 1990s, Booysen joined the Durban Murder and Robbery Squad and his career took off.

“From then on I was exposed to most of the high-profile cases in KZN. The Durban Murder and Robbery Squad was responsible for all the high-profile murders and bank robberies – and we got a lot of media exposure.

“It was also the time that ‘the new South Africa’ dawned on us. In terms of the new dispensation policemen were required to apply for promotions. In 1995, he applied for and got the job of head of Serious and Violent Crime. In 2001, he was promoted to Director of the Serious and Violent Crimes unit, equivalent in rank to a brigadier. He found himself involved in virtually every major investigation in KZN, including “endless cases” of political violence.

“I loved my uniform and the work. It was like being a full-time golfer: you work, but really enjoy what you do.”

The very first investigation his team was involved in was the horrific massacre in which 19 ANC members were killed and hundreds injured by about 600 IFP members in the hilly, strife-torn area of Shobashobane outside Port Shepstone, on Christmas day, 1995.

The second was to probe an attack on the Zulu royal palace in KwaMashu township in 1996. Men armed with spears, machetes and knobkerries, had stormed the homestead of King Goodwill Zwelithini and bludgeoned nine members of his family.

Both the Shobashobane attack and the palace massacre took place in the context of more than a decade of factional violence in KZN.

Booysen’s response to allegations made at the time of police and “third-force” involvement in these cases, is that the subsequent court processes revealed that they had been motivated by “pure criminality”.

“We have had a lot of successes over the years. I did not do the investigations myself: the teams under my command had numerous successes.

“Another high-profile matter the Cato Manor unit was involved in  was the attack and rape, near Nkandla, on one of Jacob Zuma’s wives in the late 1990s.

The unit was also involved in investigating one of the biggest armed robberies in the history of South Africa, when a private company transporting cash for Standard, Barclays and Volkskas banks was robbed of R31m in a heist.

“Within two weeks, we recovered R5.4m from the roof of a house in Sea Cow Lake… We arrested two suspects, who were later acquitted on a technicality. It took us more than three years to finalise that investigation and, in the end, about 16 people went to jail, a large number of them police officers.”

In the course of his career, Booysen graduated with a BTech in Policing from the Pretoria Technikon. He chose terrorism and organised crime as his fields of speciality. He has completed a presidential strategic management course, at honours level through the University of the North, and courses in counter-terrorism and crime-scene forensics presented by the Louisiana Police Academy at Baton Rouge, LA, for members of the FBI. He has also done a work-study course with the US Coast Guard in Miami, completed a narcotics course with the German police, and attended an international counter-terrorism seminar in Kenya. Four years ago, he attended a month-long forensics course in China.

Attitude and passion

The Cato Manor unit has been in existence since 1995, albeit under different names. It was one of several units in KwaZulu-Natal that reported to Major General Johan Booysen at provincial police headquarters, and had several different commanders in that time. “I have never been the direct commander nor have I worked at Cato Manor. This was a false perception created by the Sunday Times,” says Booysen.

He says at no time was he “operational” in Cato Manor, bar assisting with a few high-profile or international cases that required his particular expertise.

The Sunday Times tried to create the impression I was the commander. But, as deputy provincial commissioner and KZN head of the Hawks, I sat in the provincial commissioner’s office in Durban. I haven’t been operational since 1995.”

Johan Booysen at a recent meeting with suspended Cato Manor policemen

The Cato Manor unit was extremely successful at its primary function – organised violent crimes investigations – and had won accolades and awards from national and provincial commissioners as well as the MEC for safety and security. Their rate of solving crimes was unparalleled, says Booysen, listing cash-in-transit heists – “usually gang- or syndicate-related” – ATM bombings, political attacks, and the occasional casino robbery.

Specific cases the unit dealt with included the simultaneous arrest of 26 gang members for a massive armed robbery at the Umvoti Toll Plaza in 2006. Twenty-four of the men – allegedly also responsible for a spate of other armed robberies  – were found guilty last year and transported under heavy police guard to – yes – Westville Prison. “The fact that we arrested 26 suspects at the same time was ground-breaking. I don’t think that many have been convicted for one robbery in history.”

Then there was the 2010 Sibaya casino robbery by a gang, notorious for using sledgehammers to smash steel bars, thick glass and safes in the cash halls of casinos and in banks.

“At Sibaya, they shot into the casino with AK47s. The patrons had to hit the floor to avoid the bullets. The same thing had been happening at casinos in Gauteng. The Cato Manor men arrested them in Johannesburg after it turned out they had been robbing casinos in Gauteng as well.”

Booysen noted that a robbery at Johannesburg’s Carnival City Casino last year was “almost identical to the raid on Sibaya Casino and was hatched by the same guys while they were in a prison cell in Westville Prison.”

Booysen was asked to intervene personally in a few other notable cases including the bombing of the Umtamvuna Bridge between KZN and the Eastern Cape in November 2002. He subsequently testified in a “Boeremag” trial in this regard.

“In the Umtamvuna case, we received a call at 5am that people were trying to blow up the bridge. We set up a command centre and spent the whole day on the scene… When we arrested one of the suspects, he admitted what they were up to. I asked him, ‘Do you still have any explosives?’. He said, ‘Let me show you.’

“On his bakkie was a big container with the fertilizer they used to make the bombs. I screamed to my men, ‘Let’s get out of here!’ and we phoned for the explosives experts. I am not the bravest when it comes to explosives!”

In another big case, Booysen was asked to lead an investigation with members of Interpol after the Greek oil tanker Irene was taken by pirates off Somalia. “The pirates kept the crew in custody for nearly three months before securing the ransom of about $16 million and when the ship was released it came down the east coast of Africa. Interpol assembled a team, and we were approached to help.

“That was probably one of the biggest crime scenes the guys from Cato Manor ever attended: the ship was 300m long and 62m wide. Most of the investigation was confined to the living quarters and offices on the vessel… One of the pirates had dropped a little medical card from a clinic in Somalia. I took a photo and gave it to an Interpol guy… The Interpol team had a photo album of known pirates and we identified one of the guys in the album. The suspects are in Somalia, yet to be arrested.

“What was nice is that months later, I received a certificate of commendation from Interpol for the way we worked.”

One of the “really sad scenes” he was asked to help solve was the explosion at a Chatsworth nightclub in 2003, in which 13 youngsters were trampled and killed when a gas canister was thrown into the club.

“The provincial commissioner insisted I do that case myself as the case related to a lot of things we’d just learnt on a major investigation course.

“Over the years you get de-sensitised but if there is one thing I don’t like to see, it is children lying dead. The way I was taught, if a detective is allocated a docket of murder, he has to attend the post-mortem himself. Even today, if I have to attend a child’s post-mortem, it affects me.”

How has the Cato Manor unit managed to be so successful? Booysen says KZN stats show they were the leading province in terms of solving cases.

“We had a unit that was dedicated to what it was doing. Apart from having great informer networks, it was all about attitude and passion.”

So why was the unit suspended? “Let’s just say, I believe I have become the collateral damage in conflicts between other people.”

The lowest point in Booysen’s career was when senior members of the Hawks in North West, together with a local task force whose help they hadcommandeered, marched into his office – “dressed in camo, lending drama to the scene” – to handcuff and arrest him in August 2012.

He emphasises the personal horror: “I am a career policeman, a general in the police! This happened four or five years before my retirement.

“I was taken, in handcuffs, out of my office and down the lift, in front of all my staff… There was a whole entourage of media outside, with the Sunday Times at the front. Then they searched my house. Two of my Indian staff members insisted on accompanying me.

“While my home was being searched I heard a commotion outside – and there were Sunday Times people in my yard. I chased them out and afterwards, my domestic worker, who has worked for me for 23 years, told me they were quizzing her about whether I was a racist.

“But what was really heartwarming was the support I had from the general public.

“I mean, one minute I was doing talks for Business Against Crime and the next, I was on the front page
of a newspaper for allegedly being manager of a murderous criminal enterprise.”

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