Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 2004-10-17 Reporter: Paddy Harper

All Rise for Schabir Shaik the Movie Star



Sunday Times

Date 2004-10-17


Paddy Harper

Web Link


Schabir Shaik bounces into a video store in Florida Road, an upmarket Durban party zone on Monday, with his brother Mo in tow.

His cinematic pleasure: Van Helsing, the rather grisly tale of a slayer of vampires and other blood-sucking supernatural creatures.

An interesting choice for a man who is fighting a battle for his reputation in the Durban High Court.

In court, Schabir Shaik the movie buff becomes Schabir Shaik the movie star. He arrives minutes before the proceedings start with brothers Yunus, Mo and Chippy (Shamim). Brother Faizel makes only periodic appearances. Schabir is shadowed by a group of sidekicks, two of them hefty, thick-necked. Police line the street outside the Durban High Court.

It's been blocked off to traffic, every person entering is searched, while a mass of cameramen and photographers sprint from entrance to entrance for a new image.

Inside the courtroom there's less hype, with Judge Hillary Squires making it clear that no media grandstanding will be tolerated.

Every time Scorpions prosecutor Billy Downer stands up and talks to Judge Squires, his right hand develops a mind of its own and furiously twists a pen.

Downer cuts a meticulous figure as he addresses Judge Squires, whose task it is to decide whether or not Schabir Shaik bought South Africa's Deputy President Jacob Zuma.

Downer's argument is this that the bond between Zuma and Shaik, forged during the struggle, gave birth to a parasitic interdependence in which comrade corrupted comrade in the rush for a slice of the multimillion-rand arms deal.

The Durban High Court, built in 1910, is an ironic setting for a battle that pits the new face of South Africa's criminal justice system, the Scorpions, against Shaik, a man who is seen as one of the golden boys of the new black elite.

Normal court business carries on in other courtrooms, but it's the Scorpions' show, plain and simple. Court staff are searched and security officers no longer have keys the Scorpions took them away to open and lock the doors themselves.

Breaks are a massive rush for a smoke. Mo Shaik, now an adviser to Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Deputy President Jacob Zuma's former wife, regularly cuts a pensive figure as he sparks up his now trademark pipe.

Downer, who matriculated from Pretoria Boys High School in 1974 and became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1980, melds technology and ancient poetry in the 96-year-old courtroom in his bid to get a conviction against Shaik.

On Wednesday, the third day of the trial, Downer asks for the lights to be dimmed so he can give an electronic presentation on how the state will argue its case.

Prosecution by PowerPoint is born. Downer tells Judge Squires and the packed public gallery he has gone back thousands of years and borrowed from Greek warrior-poet Virgil in setting the theme for the prosecution of the embattled Nkobi Group supremo: "I tell of arms and a man."

As water leaks from the ceiling above the packed public gallery, Downer waxes lyrical on Virgil's poem The Aeneid. He chose the "epic tale" because its theme has strong parallels with the prosecution before the court.

Virgil's multilayered poem, like the case against Shaik, Zuma's former financial adviser, is littered with alter egos. In the court case, these are the 10 companies owned by Shaik and his Nkobi group.

They are accused of paying bribes of R1,2-million to Zuma; soliciting a bribe of R500000 a year from Thompson CSF International Africa Ltd (now Thint) for Zuma's protection and the writing off of a loan account of R1,28-million.

Downer is a fastidious man with neatly trimmed grey hair and '50s-style black-rimmed glasses. He stands like a statue while outlining the case.

His delivery is precise, focused and economical. This is by-the-numbers courtroom work, no television courtroom theatrics here. The case is deeply ingrained in his head he's been involved since late 2001 and he doesn't talk from documents. Fellow prosecutors, Anton Steinberg and Santhos Manilal, work the files as he does the talking.

Downer is a complex legal figure. He has secured death sentences in murder cases, including two Pollsmoor prison murders, but made successful representations that the State President commute the sentences.

Senior Counsel Franscois van Zyl is Shaik's answer to Downer.

A silver-haired former Western Cape attorney- general, Van Zyl is a specialist in defending multinationals nailed for corruption, among them a German company accused of dodgy dealings in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project scandal.

He also defended disgraced anti-apartheid cleric Dr Allan Boesak.

Van Zyl's arguments on Shaik's behalf are as concise as Downer's are for the state. He is attuned to the needs of the Bench, slowing his delivery while Judge Squires makes notes, spelling names, and interjecting when Downer strays from the prosecution themes outlined in his presentation.

In cross-examination Van Zyl is relentless. The state's first witness, Independent Democrats deputy-president Professor Themba Sono, a former executive director of Nkobi Holdings, spends a harrowing Thursday afternoon at Van Zyl's hands as stitch after stitch of his evidence is unpicked by the defence.

The evidence focuses on what Sono describes as "crony capitalism", using post-liberation political connections to enrich a network of former comrades.

Van Zyl argues that Sono's relationship with Shaik soured because Sono had done little to earn his R15000-a-month retainer.

Sono tells Squires he doesn't believe the Nkobi group is a black economic empowerment group, but rather "a Schabir Shaik enrichment vehicle".

He says Shaik used him to prove Nkobi's empowerment credentials. "My function ... I now know. I was a rented black skin," he says.

With acknowledgements to Paddy Harper and the Sunday Times.