Maduna Begins Countdown to the End of Heath
The Heath Special Investigating Unit is to be disbanded once its current work is completed, Penuell Maduna, the minister of justice, announced on Tuesday.
He also announced that the unit's head, Judge Willem Heath, would be taking "long leave" from February 1.
Sources close to Judge Heath confirmed he had requested to be placed on leave from next week in a bid to distance himself from the unit and, in so doing, to save the unit from any fallout from his fight with the government over his participation in the arms procurement probe.
It is not known how long it will take the unit to complete its workload
In a letter to President Thabo Mbeki this week, Judge Heath asked that he be granted leave for an undisclosed period to "allow for the smooth operation of the unit in conjunction with the government".
But his withdrawal seems to have come too late for the unit.
Maduna told journalists at a Pretoria Press Club lunch that the unit would be allowed to complete its current workload of cases before being disbanded. The unit is currently investigating about 200 000 cases of alleged corruption involving public funds.
He said only the referral of new cases to the unit by Mbeki could extend the life of the unit. However, this is unlikely after Mbeki's announcement on Wednesday that he would not refer any new cases to the controversial unit and would in future set up ad hoc commissions of inquiry to investigate matters as the need arose.
SIU spokesperson Naomi Goodley said the unit had received no official word of the government's intentions.
Heath has hinted he would prefer to resign and continue his investigative work
It is not known how long it will take the unit to complete its workload, but Maduna said a government audit of the current investigations was to be undertaken, and any cases which could be handled by other agencies would be taken away from the SIU.
The news has rocked the 100-strong Heath unit. One member of the unit, who asked not to be named, said staff members were confused by conflicting statements from the government concerning their future. "First they say we are overworked. Then they say the unit will close after we finish our work. Which is it? You would think the number of cases and the success we have had is proof of the need for a specialist unit like this."
Asked whether he would recommend that Judge Heath continue his corruption-busting work if he were to resign from the bench, Maduna declined to speculate.
Judge Heath previously indicated that returning to court would "not be my first choice" and hinted he would prefer to resign and continue his investigative work.
Maduna said an amendment to the Special Investigating Units and Special Tribunals Act that would allow a non-judge to head special investigating units had been drafted and would be presented to the cabinet soon before being referred to parliament for approval next month.
With acknowledgement to Marco Granelli and Independent Online.