Secretaries Could Dictate Who Will be Taken Down in Shaik Trial
If the trial of Durban businessman Schabir Shaik does nothing else, it seems likely that it will set off warning bells about the affable and sometimes even personal relationship between businessmen and their secretaries.
Who will provide the most damning evidence (if anyone) is not clear as the trial gets under way, but it is not impossible that as it progresses, it could become known as "the revenge of the secretaries".
At least one secretary, and possibly two, are due to give evidence at the trial, although their names have been kept from view.
Both are apparently reluctant witnesses, and Scorpions lawyer Billy Downer said in an affidavit that gave rise to the search warrant in the early stages of the investigation that both were "scared".
The prosecution re-emphasised the point on Monday during testimony in the application to have the proceedings televised, but opposing it mostly on the basis that it could affect the evidence of witnesses.
It is thought that the one of the witnesses was at one time Shaik's secretary and was most probably privy to some of his, and his companies', most intimate secrets.
The other was a secretary to another key character in the investigation, Alain Thetard a senior negotiator from French arms company Thales and at one time a board member of Shaik's and Thales' South African operating unit, African Defence Systems.
The names of these two witnesses are known to the defence, but have been kept from public eye by placing them on a second, secret witness list.
But their continued participation in the trial must come as bad news for the defence team, because the naturally close relationship between businessmen and their secretaries opens a host of possible lines of evidence.
The fact that their names have been kept secret suggests that they are not only still afraid about testifying, but also of their importance in the trial .
The charge sheet does not indicate, or even suggest, what aspect of the charges the secretaries might testify about.
But there was one suggestion on this question, not from the Scorpions charge sheet, but from the case brought by Thetard against the Scorpions a few months ago.
When addressing the issue of the now notorious encrypted fax, Thetard said the contents of the document consisted of idle jottings, which he tossed in the waste-paper basket "from where it was presumably retrieved".
The Scorpions dispute this version of what the fax was about and whether it was sent, but an important subsidiary question: who did the retrieving and why? Could it have been Thetard's secretary?
This is one of the questions the trial will answer.
Although none of the allegations made in the charge sheet are linked to any witness, it provides substantial evidence about the nature Shaik's many business transactions.
The state's case against Shaik includes evidence on at least 10 separate business ventures, ranging from the arms deal; the Point development in Durban; an ecotourism school in KwaZulu-Natal; a proposed deal with Kuwaiti businessman Fouad Alghanim; fleet services for the police; a cellphone business and even a bank.
In each of these businesses, Shaik is accused of drawing on his relationship with Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Much of this information would have come from the shelves of documents the Scorpions seized from Shaik, and yet more from the forensic probe done by auditors KPMG.
And who would be better placed to provide knowledge of the nature, tone and circumstance of these transactions other than a secretary?
This too, the trial will reveal.
In the meantime, businessmen might be tempted to spend a little time considering whether their secretaries' remuneration is in line with their responsibilities.
With acknowledgements to Tim Cohen and the Business Day.