Helping the state recover millions
Forensic investigator Jandé van der Merwe is committed to ensuring that state funds go where they are intended, by rooting out corruption.
Jande van der Merwe, a young forensic investigator at the Special Investigating Unit, is fast becoming the fixer when it comes to difficult cases
From saving government millions, to reversing a multimillion rand lease, to the dismissals of senior officials and a criminal conviction, a young Special Investigating Unit (SIU) forensic investigator is fast becoming the fixer when it comes to difficult cases.
Thirty-four-year-old Jandé van der Merwe cut her teeth in the world of forensic investigations at the SIU. She started her career as an intern and has grown through the ranks to become one of the leading forensic investigators.
The SIU's primary mandate is to recover and prevent financial losses to the state caused by acts of corruption, fraud and maladministration.
Under Proclamation R38 of 2010, she was part of a team that investigated a case which resulted in the dismissal of three top officials. Van der Merwe was required to testify in the disciplinary proceedings.The case resulted in the reversal of a lease agreement to the value of R137 million which was declared invalid by the North Gauteng High Court.
She also helped in the recovery of R1 092 630.59 in respect of overpayments made to a service provider, after an acknowledgement of debt was signed.
Currently, she is working on a case which could result in the recovery of R103 million in respect of a R1.9 billion contract.
Under Proclamation R5 of 2015, she was part of an investigation that led to the criminal conviction of a company providing security services.This was in respect of the Private Security Industry Regulation Act 56 of 2001. The accused was sentenced to a fine of R100 000, of which R50 000 was suspended for four years.
Van der Merwe says these achievements did not happen overnight but were the result of hard work, commitment, dedication, building strong relationships and paying attention to detail.
Her journey to becoming a competent forensic investigator started over a decade ago when she graduated from the University of Pretoria in 2005 with an Honours degree in Criminology.
She says her love for forensic investigation was fuelled by watching television programmes in which criminal detectives would rush to murder scenes to work their magic.
‘When it comes to investigations that are politically sensitive, one must exercise extra precaution not to become entangled in political webs.’
Van der Merwe says at some stage, every investigator comes across a challenging case that gives them sleep-
less nights. She personally finds ‘politically sensitive' cases the most tricky to deal with. However, as an independent investigator she has never let her judgement be clouded.
“When it comes to investigations that are politically sensitive, one must exercise extra precaution not to become entangled in political webs. I try not to be influenced by any of that. As investigators, we try to ignore that aspect.”
She adds that it is not only such cases that present added pressure. “You'll also have people who try to influence your investigation by feeding you information that is not always correct.”
She says when things get out of hand and someone wants to chat offline with her about a case she is investigating, she reports it to her manager for further intervention.
Challenges that comes with her job
Van der Merwe says her job throws many challenges in her direction, from lack of co-operation by different role players and evasive eyewitness to her personal safety.
“Witnesses who do not always keep to appointments or are reluctant to fully participate in interviews are some of the challenges I come across.The roles played by witnesses can cause delays in the progress of investigations.”
She adds that the reluctance of witnesses to provide information due to fear of intimidation, victimisation or for personal security reasons also proves to be a challenge.
Van der Merwe says it is immensely satisfying to see investigations through to the end, especially when the outcome positively impacts the lives of ordinary citizens.
“It is very satisfying for me to complete an investigation, especially those cases in which ordinary people have suffered as a result of the unscrupulous conduct of a service provider who may have defrauded a government department, municipality or state-owned entity.”
She adds that cases in which money is recovered are particularly satisfying because the funds come from taxpayers and are meant to be spent meaningfully.
Advice to young potential forensic investigators
Her advice to young women who would like to get into the field of forensic investigation is to have a strong character and never give up because the career comes with a lot of challenges.
She adds that you have to have an eye for detail and pay attention to small details that might be missed by an ordinary person. Another important aspect is to build relationships with people from all walks of life because you never know who might help you with something important one day.
Van der Merwe says she is happy with her career progress as well as the experience and exposure it has given her.
She says young women who would like to become forensic investigators should not fear anything but should rather have confidence in their ability to make a difference. There are always opportunities to embrace and explore within the field of forensic investigation, such as cyber forensics, forensic accounting and forensic law, she says.
Forensic investigation is a diverse sector that can allow women to find their feet and make a difference in combating corruption while loving what they do. “It may not always be easy, but if you work hard it will be worth every effort. Follow your dreams.”