It was a victory two years in the making for authorities when the six men accused of murdering whistle-blower Babita Deokaran, were convicted at the High Court in Johannesburg this week.
The half-dozen killers pleaded guilty to killing Deokaran in 2021 after she raised concerns over irregular personal protective equipment (PPE) expenditure of R332 million.
She was acting chief financial officer of the department at the time. Alleged ringleader Phakamani Hadebe, 31, was sentenced to 22 years imprisonment, Nhlangano Ndlovu, 29, to six years, Sanele Mbhele, 29, to 22 years, Siphakanyiswa Dladla, 27, to 15 years (eight years for murder and seven years for possession of an unlawful firearm and ammunition), Zitha Radebe, 32, to 15 years and Siphiwe Mazibuko, 30, to 15 years imprisonment.
In their plea explanation, they detailed how they traced the movements of Deokaran, on two separate occasions, before she was killed.
According to a statement by the National Prosecuting Authority, pictures of Deokaran’s home as well as those of her vehicle were sent to someone known as Khanyisani Mpungose.
Mpungose was fingered as the person who approached Hadebe, seeking to deal with Deokaran as she was “problematic”.
The killers stated that on the day of the incident, 23 August, 2021, Mpungose arrived with an unknown male who joined them to execute the plan of killing Deokaran.
They added that they were driving in two separate vehicles that followed Deokaran to Columbine Square Shopping Centre in the south of Johannesburg and, thereafter, to her home.
Along the way, she stopped to pick up her domestic helper and as she brought her car to a halt, one of their vehicles stopped alongside hers and Mpungose and the unknown male fired several shots towards Deokaran’s car.
Thereafter, they fled the scene.
Deokaran’s killing, and the murder of other whistle-blowers begs the question of whether the state has done enough to protect witnesses, said forensic investigator Chad Thomas of IRS Forensic Investigations.
“The Witness Protection Act 112 of 1998 says that witnesses have a right to protection should they in any way feel threatened or exposed.
Where do we see this happen? Deokaran is a prime example of this. Witnesses are simply not protected in this country,” said Thomas.
He added that witnesses are paying with their lives, to do right by their families and the country. Thomas suggested that while the six men were jailed, the lack of clarity on whether they revealed conspirators even further up the food chain can create an open invitation to anyone seeking to get rid of someone violently.
“If people can see they can get away with murder and it’s simply the foot soldiers that bear the consequences, it becomes lucrative,” he said.
And of course, said Thomas, while in prison it’s likely that foot soldiers’ families are well looked after while they serve time “as long as they don’t give up the masterminds”.
Thomas said that the outcome of the matter was pathetic.
“Justice was not served,” he said, adding that usually, when a plea deal is made with the state, perpetrators give up and name their handlers or principals.
“But in this case, it didn’t seem to happen beyond naming a middleman.” Thomas said conspiracy to commit murder is as serious a crime as the act of killing itself.
The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) said its investigation into PPE corruption has produced significant results.
It said consequence management has been implemented. “Several senior officials in the health department have faced disciplinary action and dismissed from employment, PPE contracts have been terminated and monies returned to the state,” it said.
The SIU also indicated that last week “the health department announced that it has suspended six of the nine officials who were cited in the SIU report on Tembisa Hospital, while others left the hospital before action could be taken against them”.
The convictions were not enough, said executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Neeshan Balton.
“The arrest of those who paid those assassins is one of the steps that would enable them (Deokaran’s family) to find comfort and closure,” he said.