Sono : Why I Dumped Shaik
Estelle Ellis, Jeremy Gordin
'My politics and my skin colour are not for rent," Themba Sono has told the trial of Schabir Shaik.
The deputy leader of the Independent Democrats was talking in the Durban High Court yesterday about his resignation seven years ago as an executive director of Shaik's company, Nkobi Holdings.
Shaik has pleaded not guilty to two charges of corruption and one of fraud.
The state alleges that a "general corrupt relationship" existed between Shaik and Zuma, and that Shaik attempted to solicit a R1-million bribe for Zuma from the French arms company, Thint.
Sono, the first witness in the state's case, said that what Shaik called "political connectivity", he would call "corruption".
Sono told the court he had met Shaik in 1996, when the Durban businessman offered him the job and had been impressed by him. "He was a very articulate fellow with a fascinating vision.
"I did not expect to make money initially. Shaik said: 'I am going to make you a millionaire.' I said: 'Hear hear'."
Later Sono said: "(Shaik) was running all over the world with Nkobi and taking me with him. He wanted to make it, (wanted Nkobi) to be the Murray & Roberts, the Altron, the Oppenheimers of South Africa."
Sono said he would attend meetings at which Shaik would tell potential joint-venture partners: "We have political connectivity - without this it could be difficult to get contracts."
But Shaik's senior counsel, Francois van Zyl SC, asked whether this was not his client's way of explaining why Nkobi was suitable as a black economic empowerment partner. Was not a BEE partner valuable to have when bidding for government business, he asked.
"Our political connectivity was mentioned by us," Sono answered. "It was what we brought in. You have to bring something in."
Later he said he would not disagree that suitability as a BEE company was the backdrop against which political connectivity was mentioned.
But, Sono said, "Shaik was the king of the hill. They (foreign firms seeking government tenders) wanted a political force that could deliver. He was a good negotiator."
Sono admitted having known very little about the finances of Nkobi Holdings, saying he was a director "in name only".
However, he was once present when there was a heated debate about Nkobi not being able to fund joint ventures. This was when it, with Denel and French arms company Thomson (now known as Thint), were going to bid for the credit-card driving licence tender.
"Schabir was brilliant in responding. 'We are an empowerment company,' he said. 'We bring goodwill and open doors and political connectivity. That is very important.' The others were not very convinced," Sono explained.
"Political connectivity is Shaik's phrase," he added. "He always said that we can deliver on the contracts - by obtaining them."
He said Shaik often mentioned the names of Deputy President Jacob Zuma and former transport minister Mac Maharaj.
At meetings, he would tell joint-venture partners that he could not switch off his cellphone because "Deputy President Zuma may call at any time".
Sono said that in 1996, when Nkobi was positioning itself to bid for the corvette contract that formed part of the arms deal, he told Shaik that the company did not have the requisite expertise.
"He said it would be built up over time. For now we had to place ourselves strategically. I understood this to mean that we must ensure that the bidding was a sure thing, persuade our friends, whoever they may be, to help us. We had to get government officials to help us. The two names that came to mind were Zuma and Maharaj."
Sono said Shaik had once asked him if Zuma would be deputy president, and he answered in the affirmative. When Shaik asked about his becoming Zuma's director-general, Sono told Shaik he was the "wrong guy" because he only woke up at 11am, rushed off to the mosque and only started work at 2pm, before working until 3am. "I was not doubting the possibility. I was doubting the suitability," Sono said.
He added he did not know that Shaik or Nkobi Holdings paid money to Zuma. "I would not have been in favour. Nkobi had financial problems."
Sono said that in 1996, when Nkobi's cheques were bouncing and it was unable to pay salaries, he gave the company his savings of R753 000. "When I asked for it back, Shaik sent me from pillar to post."
But Van Zyl said R2,3-million was deposited at Nkobi in 1996.
Sono: "R2,3-million? No way. Shaik kept these things to himself."
Sono said he resigned in February 1997, having been unhappy for a while with Shaik's "boorish and autocratic manner" and in seeing Nkobi money going elsewhere.
"Shaik has two personalities: the sunny side and the not-so-sunny side. That is what finally triggered my letter of resignation."
"A few days before I wrote my letter of resignation, Shaik said to me: 'Listen here, my friend, your blackness means nothing to me. Your professorship, PhD, connection with Mandela, Mbeki or the ANC does not mean anything in this company.' "
Sono said: "After I left, he called me. He wanted me to come back."
Cross-examination of Sono was to continue today.
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete yesterday granted two MPs permission to testify as state witnesses in the Shaik trial. They are former public accounts committee chairperson Gavin Woods of the Inkatha Freedom Party and Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille. De Lille said she would go to jail if necessary to protect her sources when she testifies.
With acknowledgements to Estelle Ellis, Jeremy Gordin and The Star.