Sono Ignorant of Workings of Shaik Companies
Wendy Jasson Da Costa, Ben Maclennan
A former associate of businessman Schabir Shaik on Thursday confessed to the Durban High Court he had little idea of the nature of the companies in the Nkobi Holdings group, of which Shaik had appointed him an executive director.
Prof Themba Sono, who is now deputy president of the Independent Democrats, said he was not even aware he had been listed as a director of Chartley Investments, a company 95 percent owned by Shaik.
"My knowledge was constrained by Mr Schabir Shaik keeping, you know, everything to himself," he said.
Shaik is facing corruption and fraud charges which relate in part to his allegedly siphoning off money from the Nkobi group to bankroll Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Sono, who took the stand as the first witness in the trial even though he is number 91 on the state's list of more than 100, testified that Shaik at one point speculated that he might become director general in Zuma's office when Zuma became deputy president.
Sono, who is diabetic, was attended to by a doctor at the morning tea break after his sugar level rocketed.
He said Shaik appointed him to the Nkobi Holdings directorship early in 1996 and that he had expected this would make him rich.
"It is Mr Schabir Shaik who triggered my interest when he said 'I'm going to make you a millionaire'.
"I said, ja, ja."
Leader of the prosecution team Billy Downer put it to him that forensic accounting evidence would show that he was in fact never a director of Nkobi Holdings.
"That's news to me," said Sono. "This is what I was told by Mr Shaik himself."
Questioned about the activities of the Nkobi group of companies listed on the back of the business card he carried then, he said of one that he was "not sure" what its activities were; of another that it had "something to do with finance"; and of another that it was "just a name to me".
He said he was a "nominal' director, and merely attended meetings and discussions or negotiations because there was "nothing else to be done, nothing, zilch.
"Schabir was fond of saying 'watch me act', and so I watched him acting."
Sono said Shaik had told him more than once about the South African government's planned corvette programme, part of the multi-billion rand arms programme, and had decided to position himself to take advantage of this.
Sono said he knew that South Africa's military equipment was due for an upgrade because he had friends in government "like Tony Yengeni".
Yengeni, a former chief whip of the African National Congress and ex-head of the parliamentary defence committee, was sentenced last year to four years jail for fraud for accepting a luxury car arranged by a bidder in the arms deal.
Sono testified that Shaik would boast at meetings with potential business partners of his "political connectivity" and that he repeatedly mentioned the names of Zuma and then Transport Minister Mac Maharaj.
He said Shaik had a "nice big cellphone" and always said at meetings that he was leaving it on because he was expecting important calls and that Zuma might call at any time.
He said Nkobi was cash-strapped, and that at the end of 1996 he lent the company R75 000 when employees' Christmas salary cheques bounced.
This led to a dispute when Sono asked for the money back.
"He sent me from pillar to post for many, many years," he said.
The fact that Nkobi had nothing in cash terms to bring to the table had been a source of heated debate at a meeting with Denel and Thomson CSF, partners with Nkobi in a successful tender for the new plastic card drivers' licences.
"Schabir was brilliant in responding to that," said Sono. "He says we are bringing in a lot of goodwill here, we are an empowerment company. This is the new South Africa. If we are going to open doors, you must regard our goodwill in monetary value."
He said Shaik had been mentioning Zuma's name right from the time of their first meeting, in May 1996.
"He asked me, you know President (Nelson) Mandela is going to retire soon and deputy president (Thabo) Mbeki would become the president, and minister Zuma would be the deputy president.
"And he says what do you think if I become a director general in the deputy president Zuma's [office]?" Sono said.
He said he told Shaik he was the "wrong guy" for the job because he woke up only at 11am, then went off to mosque, before working into the small hours of the morning.
Shaik's advocate, Francois van Zyl, several times objected to the relevance of testimony Downer was trying to lead, and was supported by judge Hillary Squires.
One matter on which Squires cut Sono short was when Downer asked him whether he had knowledge of money paid by Nkobi to people outside the group, and Sono began describing an occasion that had to do with "the trip of King Goodwill Zwelethini".
Sono said he parted ways with Shaik at the beginning of 1997, partly because of an incident in which Shaik spoke to him in an "unacceptable" tone but also because he took exception to the general "boorish and autocratic manner" in which Shaik treated him and others.
He said Shaik had two personalities, "the sunny side and the other, non-sunny side", and quoted Shaik as telling him: "Listen here my friend: your blackness means nothing to me.
"Your professorship, PhD, connection with Mandela and Mbeki or the ANC does not mean anything in this company."
Sono told the court: "With my skin colour and politics, I am not for rent."
He will continue under cross-examination on Friday morning.
With acknowledgements to Wendy Jasson Da Costa, Ben Maclennan and Sapa.