A New Season of the Shaik Soapie
Spring is in the air and it's the season for South Africa's favourite homespun courtroom drama - that curious mix of reality TV and soapie starring the Shaiks, the country's multi-billion rand arms deal, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and, of course, the omnipresent, yet never present, Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Last October, the Hefer Commission gripped public imagination by presenting a surreal saga of spies, political back-stabbing and character assassination most foul televised into living rooms.
Now, the curtain is set to rise on a sequel, this time set in the Durban High Court and featuring the trial of Zuma's financial adviser, Schabir Shaik.
There is more than a touch of déja vu for the public. The backdrop to the case is once again the Scorpions probe into alleged corruption in high places, media leaks and political tensions.
The dramatic question once again is whether or not a prominent and popular public figure will fall from grace.
At the Hefer Commission it was the reputation of the then National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, at stake.
Ngcuka, remember, stood accused of abusing power motivated by having been an apartheid-era spy.
The spy accusation fell apart and the commission came to an early end, allowing retired Judge Joos Hefer to return to a peaceful private life and commission secretary John Bacon to go back to his post in the Department of Justice.
This time, while it is Shaik who is on trial, it is the reputation of Zuma that is on the line, and should the prosecution's case fall apart, fingers are likely to be harshly pointed at the National Prosecuting Authority.
All of which means there is more than a slight sense of déja vu this October - the more so as the lead-up to Shaik's trial is increasingly littered with the same refrains of alleged kickbacks relating to the arms deal and alleged leaks from the NPA.
Come the start of the Shaik trial, some familiar figures from the Hefer Commission will be back one way or another - either in the limelight or watching from the wings.
First and foremost of these are the Shaik brothers, and since this is a very close family, they are all likely to pop into the court-room to lend support to Schabir.
Aside from the cigar-chomping Schabir, the brothers include former Department of Defence top official Chippy, attorney Younis, and Mo, the ANC's very own 007.
Mo, a former intelligence ministry adviser turned diplomat, was Ngcuka's chief accuser back in October last year.
At the commission he delivered a dramatic performance ranging from customary charm to emotional outbursts, but singularly failed to prove his case and later apologised to Ngcuka before returning to his job at Foreign Affairs.
Then there are the legal beagles who did the nation proud at the Hefer Commission, their cross-examination turning much of the testimony heard at Hefer threadbare. Several attorneys who were at the Hefer Commission are involved in the Shaik trial.
They include Advocate Kessie Naidu, the SC who was dubbed the "silver fox".
Naidu is the epitome of the courtroom lawyer character that scriptwriters dream of creating.
As leader of evidence during the Hefer Commission, Naidu held the nation riveted with his vigorous and sometimes ruthless cross-examination technique.
He will be back at the Durban trial but this time is set to play only a bit part. He is the lead counsel for Thint Pty Ltd, but charges against his client are likely to be dropped at the outset of the trial.
Meanwhile, Naidu has had more than a little to do with one of Mo Shaik's sources, the notorious Eastern Cape former policeman Gideon Nieuwoudt.
The revelation that Nieuwoudt was one of the masked men who, in a television interview, Mo Shaik produced to accuse Ngcuka, shocked the audience of the Hefer Commission, as did a revelation that Nieuwoudt received money from Shaik. The identity of the other masked accuser has never been revealed.
This year, Naidu has represented the families of the Motherwell victims in a re-hearing on an amnesty application by Nieuwoudt, who since Hefer ended has had rather a tough time battling to avoid jail for his apartheid era crimes.
The central figure of the Hefer Commission - Bulelani Ngcuka - is no longer at the helm of the NPA. Ngcuka was vindicated by the Hefer Commission and returned to his post seemingly reinvigorated after taking a break in the Eastern Cape to consider his future, not least in view of the strain placed upon his family.
But the pressure did not ease. Earlier this year, the Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana released a report criticising Ngcuka's conduct in relation to Zuma. A special committee was established at Parliament to consider the Public Protector's report, and in the end parliament gave Ngcuka little more than a slap on the wrist.
But in July this year, Ngcuka abruptly announced his resignation and left the NPA at the end of August.
A successor to the hot seat has still not been announced.
Despite persistent speculation that he is poised to play a prominent role in private business or take the helm at a parastatal, Ngcuka is for the time being involved in a black empowerment business initiative in Johannesburg.
His wife, Phumzile remains the minister for mineral affairs and is regarded as a senior member of cabinet.
Also gone from public life is the justice minister who vigorously and consistently backed the NPA, Penuell Maduna.
He announced his intention not to run for public office prior to the elections, citing personal considerations. Maduna now works as a special adviser on black economic empowerment for Sasol.
The former minister might no longer be in the public eye, but he has not lost any of his bluntness, judging from his remarkably dismissive comments about the Public Protector and his report earlier this year.
If the legal fraternity were more often than not the stars of Hefer, the media, too, had their turn in the limelight and did not exactly come out smelling of roses.
The Hefer Commission was established after an article appeared in City Press about allegations that Ngcuka had been a spy.
The article turned out to have been written by journalist Ranjeni Munusamy, at the time employed by rival newspaper, the Sunday Times.
Unsurprisingly, Munusamy promptly departed from the Sunday Times and at the outset of the Hefer Commission was engaged in putting forward a case of press freedom in order to ward off being forced to testify.
As the case for Ngcuka having been a spy fell apart, Munusamy was spared the ordeal of appearing before the Commission. But she was not spared sharp criticism from many of her peers including some critiques that came close to being as scurrilous as the City Press report that triggered the drama.
Munusamy is too robust a figure to have played the role of damsel in distress in the Hefer soapie, despite on one occasion melodramatically expressing fear for her life.
And post-commission she showed there is life after Hefer, weathering the storm, retaining her close links with the so-called Zuma grouping in the ANC, and earlier this year making it back into journalism, this time as a political writer at ThisDay newspaper.
Munusamy has never told her side of the story.
The then City Press editor Vusi Mona followed a different path and is gone from newspapers. Mona's grin at the outset of the commission saw him dubbed Mona Lisa but by the end of his testimony had no reason to smile.
Mona was revealed to have been dishonest in his testimony - not least about an off-the-record briefing by Ngcuka that he attended - and reckless in how he published Munusamy's article, never considering whose agenda was being promoted.
The commission was still less impressed to hear of Mona's links with a public relations person, Dominic Ncele, who it turned out acted for both the Kebble family and soccer boss Irvin Khoza - both targets of Scorpions investigations.
After leaving City Press, Mona was hired by an Mpumalanga government initiative that is also closely linked to Zuma. Ironically, Mona was succeeded at the helm of City Press by Mathatha Tsedu, the editor who initially refused to publish Munusamy's article in the Sunday Times.
Like Mona, several other luminaries of Hefer had their five minutes of fame and returned to relative obscurity.
One such is agent Agent RS 452, the apartheid-era Eastern Cape spy who obsessed Mo Shaik. Far from being Ngcuka Agent RS 452 turned out to be former Eastern Cape lawyer activist Vanessa Brereton.
She cut an unattractive figure in subsequent media interviews explaining her actions in terms of love - the passion she felt for yet another notorious Eastern Cape policeman and spy, Carl Edwards - and somewhat unconvincingly maintained she never betrayed the trust of her clients at the time, including political detainees.
Deputy President Jacob Zuma did not testify at the Hefer Commission and is not listed as a witness at the Shaik trial.
However this absence does not mean the ANC veteran politician did not and does not have a key role to play in the unfolding dramas, Ongoing allusions to alleged corruption relating to the arms deal and involving the deputy president have been a constant theme song for more than a year.
Zuma has meanwhile got about business of state and continues to command considerable trust and loyalty in many quarters of the ANC.
Another ANC veteran who to this day has neither been cleared not charged by the authorities is former transport minister Mac Maharaj.
The Hefer Commission saw Maharaj testify about the hurt and indignation he felt at leaks about Scorpions investigations into allegations against Maharaj and his wife, Zarina.
Maharaj subsequently left his top post at Rand Bank and is engaged in less high profile business activities. The NPA recently said investigations relating to Maharaj were continuing.
With acknowledgements to Chiara Carter and The Star.