Spinning Out of Control
Xolisa Vapi, Paddy Harper
While Schabir Shaik's heavyweight legal team slugs it out in the Durban High Court in a bid to keep the Nkobi Group supremo out of jail, a second, unofficial squad is battling to clear his name in the court of public perception.
Under-the-radar spin doctor Dominic Ntsele has been waging a propaganda war since his arrival in court this week.
Although this is his first public engagement, Ntsele is known to be a consultant to several wealthy celebrities who have fallen foul of the National Prosecuting Authority's intensive probes — including Orlando Pirates boss Irvin Khoza and mining mogul Brett Kebble.
Ntsele says most of his clients are business people whose reputations have been sullied by damaging allegations being aired in public while they are being probed or standing trial.
He says his clients' businesses suffer as "legal remedy comes too slow". By the time they are acquitted, it is often too late to reverse the damage, and only spin can save their reputations. "In business, reputation is more than the product itself," he says.
When Ntsele arrived in court this week, he prominently took his seat next to Shaik. Despite not being a lawyer, the moon-faced Ntsele wears an official "defence team" tag issued by the NPA and takes up valuable space at the table reserved for the legal teams.
Behind him sits Shaik's brother Mo, sandwiched between journalists. The two act as cheerleaders for defence lawyer Francois van Zyl — passing notes, smiling and prodding journalists when he scores a point.
The cheerleading is barely audible, conducted in genteel murmurs, hisses and body language. It peaks when Van Zyl seeks to sink state witnesses or when he objects to the state's tabling of evidence which, in the defence's view, can weaken Shaik's case.
One of Ntsele's most formidable tasks is controlling Shaik himself, who is prone to outbursts and facial contortions. "Schabir is a colourful guy. To put him there and expect him not to say anything is frustrating him," says Ntsele.
But Ntsele was not by Shaik's side when he fell asleep during evidence by KPMG forensic auditor Johan van der Walt, who gave a lengthy presentation on Shaik's alleged share shuffling within the Nkobi Group.
It is outside the court chamber during breaks that Ntsele is most active. Lobbying journalists to "hear the other side of the story" is a tough job; more so when the NPA's own spin doctor Sipho Ngwema is in their midst.
Ntsele runs a company called Capacity Building Group, which has business cards that read: "Capacity n, potential, ability, capability, competence, intelligence, wit, brain(s), talent, aptitude, acumen, understanding, sense, judgement, perspicacity, perceptiveness, perception, mother wit, intellect, genius, skill, gift, faculty, power."
The spin doctor wears many hats at the trial — lobbyist, reputation manager, family spokesman, Shaik trial guest, project manager, media consultant, family friend. He is as colourful as his besieged client, spewing anti-NPA venom at the mere sight of a microphone as he charges against what he calls "Bulelani Ngcuka's legacy of political charges which have no legal basis".
Ntsele shrugs off criticism that he has no legal acumen, saying: "You don't need to be a doctor to know it's healthy to eat eggs for breakfast."
He says he has a "holding brief" to defend his client "who has been abused by the NPA", adding that the prosecuting authority's case against Shaik "has the makings of a malicious prosecution".
"I don't defend the innocence of Shaik. But what I'm arguing against is the abuse of state organs, which leads to them [his clients] not getting a fair trial."
He refers to the state's case against former apartheid biological warfare expert Dr Wouter Basson, whose acquittal "caught many by surprise after the NPA successfully spun the case in the media".
"Sipho Ngwema is good at what he does, but the cases he has had to defend are lousy," says Ntsele of his Scorpions counterpart.
It will be several months before Judge Hillary Squires' verdict — and before we will know whether Ntsele or Ngwema had the last laugh.
For now, though, the show must go on.
With acknowledgements to Xolisa Vapi, Paddy Harper and the Sunday Times.