Shocked Heath Hopes SIU will Remain Intact
EAST LONDON -- Judge Willem Heath yesterday expressed shock and disappointment at a Constitutional Court ruling that will effectively remove him as head of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU).
He also cautioned against fast-tracking a change of leadership, saying the SIU needed stability and the least possible disruption to function effectively. "I have devoted myself to building up this unit for the past three years," he said. "It is very sad to me to think that it must come to an end."
The court ruled on Tuesday that it was inconsistent with the Constitution for a judge to head the unit, as this blurred the divide between the judiciary and the executive and legislative branches of government. The Department of Justice was given 12 months to amend the relevant legislation.
However, Justice spokesman Paul Setsetse said the amendment would occur as soon as possible in the new year, a clear indication that Heath would not see out the 12-month grace period. "Understandably, there is a lot of uncertainty among the staff.
''There are some fears that the unit will in fact cease to exist," Heath said, following a meeting with his staff late yesterday. The SIU employs 95 investigators and legal and administrative staff members, most of whom are based at its offices here.
"While there has been no indication that this is what is going to happen, I think it will be both short-sighted and contrary to international trends to scale back on the number and scope of anti-corruption bodies." Justice Minister Penuell Maduna is scheduled to meet Heath here next week.
"He is going there to meet with Heath, also to look at the workload and work that needs to be completed," Setsetse said. The court's ruling leaves the door open for Heath to remain head of the unit, if he resigns as a judge.
However, Maduna, with whom Heath has had a terse and acrimonious relationship, is said to be reluctant to retain Heath. Maduna is on record as saying the SIU has developed into something not initially envisaged. The Justice Department was tight-lipped yesterday as to Heath's future, and refused to be drawn on whether he could remain at the helm of the SIU if he resigned.
"That would depend entirely on the employer, who is the president," Setsetse said. "The minister is in consultation with the president." Both the PAC and the NP have called on the government to allow Heath to remain as head of the SIU if he resigns as a judge. Questioned yesterday about a future beyond the SIU, Heathsaid he was still unsure of what he would do next.
"There are a couple of options open to me. I could return to the Bench, or possibly look for something in the private sector, which at this stage seems like it would be the more challenging prospect." If approached, he would also consider opportunities abroad, he said.
With acknowledgement to Tanya Jonker and the Daily Dispatch.