The Judge of Many Jokes
The Natal Witness
If the Schabir Shaik trial is a drama, Judge Hillary Squires is emerging, in his own quiet way, as one of its richer characters.
His entry to the court room each morning is announced by a court orderly knocking loudly on the door that leads from the judges' chambers, to warn the rest of the cast that they should rise.
However, Squires manages to undermine the grandiosity of the elaborate red and black belted robes that judges in the Natal Division of the High Court still wear by entering with his hands in his pockets.
And for all his appearance of steely judicial rectitude, the 70-something judge has a wicked sense of humour, which has sparkled on several occasions during the last two weeks.
When he questioned forensic auditor Johan van der Walt on Thursday on his role in the case, suggesting it might be that of a financial detective, Van der Walt replied that he thought of himself as a bloodhound.
"Auditors are people sent in to bayonet the wounded," Squires shot back.
In the first week, when prosecutor Billy Downer was about to embark on his outline of the state's case, Squires said: "You may remember that, I think it was Mao Tse Tung who said that a thousand mile journey starts with the first step."
"Absolutely M'Lord," replied Downer.
"It's very self-evident, but are you ready to take the first step?"
"Yes M'Lord," said Downer. "I'm cognisant of the heavy burden which lies upon me."
"You can contain yourself then, and we'll take it after tea at half past eleven," said Squires.
Downer began his presentation with a quote from classical Latin, which he translated as: "I tell of arms and a man".
The judge sat on it for five days before issuing a tongue-in-cheek challenge to Downer on whether "sing" was not a better translation for the Latin "cano" than "tell", offering him in legalese the opportunity to "amend".
Squires has shown extraordinary consideration to witnesses. When testimony or cross examination had to stand over to the following day, Squires asked if it would be convenient.
He has also been remarkably restrained in dealing with the flurry of media interest provoked by the trial, dealing with what the prosecution suggested was a breach of the sub judice rule by appealing to editors' better judgment rather than by trying to lay down the law.
When one journalist's cellphone rang persistently while the court was in session, he at first ignored it, then merely asked - albeit in a way that made it clear he would brook no refusal - that the phone be removed from the courtroom.
And though he has barred television cameras from the courtroom while the body of the trial is in progress, he left the door open for TV broadcast of closing arguments and his judgment and sentence - which would be a South African High Court first.
When one former secretary of French arms company Thomson was being cross-examined last week on the nature of documents her boss fed into the paper shredder in his office, Squires interjected: "I presume it was documents he didn't want to keep."
If the remark was a joke, no one laughed. Perhaps it wasn't. But either way, it shows that Hillary Squires, like everyone else in the Shaik drama, is only human.
With acknowledgements to Sapa and The Natal Witness.