Publication: Sunday Independent Issued: Date: 2004-10-17 Reporter: Karen Bliksem

Trying Times as Fourth Estate Besieges Confines of Steamy Coastal Courtroom



Sunday Independent

Date 2004-10-17


Karen Bliksem

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Well, dear readers, here I am in Durbs by the sea where I have come to see what the state, as it is often grandiloquently referred to, has to dish up against that fun-loving fellow, Schabir Shaik, a "Durban businessman" of note - though I fear that after this trial, whichever way it goes, he may want to go and be some other place's business person.

What if, for example, in three months time, he is jolling along Florida Road on the way to his favourite restaurant, and he runs into Judge Hilary Squires?

Now I appreciate that Judge Squires, who is well past the biblical measure of three score and ten, and looks to be a studious man besides, is not likely to do much partying. But still. It would be a cute meeting nonetheless: the classic Mutt and Jeff encounter. The one is short, square, dark-haired and of a coffee-coloured hue, while the other is tall, thin (almost cadaverous), grey-haired and clearly of Caucasian provenance.

I suspect, however, judging from the conversations I have had with the short one, and a few comments made in court by the tall one, that they might share a common sense of humour.

It reminds me of that Thomas Hardy poem, the title of which I can't recall just now, the one spoken by an English soldier sitting in the trenches during the First World War. He thinks to himself that, if it were not for war, he would not be about to go off and kill the fellow just like himself in the trenches on the other side of no man's land, but would be sitting down and having a drink with the man.

And who is to deny that, if it weren't for the arms deal and all the shenanigans that went with it, Shaik and Squires might have shared a quiet drink one day somewhere close to the azure sea that skirts this city?

I haven't myself had much of an opportunity for a drink or partying. In fact this court case - and it's only a week old - has been a bit of the proverbial scrum.

The problem has been the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and its concerns over security, coupled with the small size of the Edwardian courtroom.

With those concerns in mind, and worried that too many hacks can certainly spoil a broth, the NPA introduced a system in terms of which only those hacks with a special yellow plastic card could gain entrance to the front half of the courtroom.

However, the NPA limited the passes to two people per newspaper group.

One foolish hack who did not fit into this category (two people from his group having already been awarded the coveted card) - and hacks are, as you know, a foolish and testy bunch - wrote about this system in some scurrilous daily newspaper.

Moreover, he boasted that the aforementioned Schaik, with whom he was acquainted, had helped him to avoid the system by purloining a yellow card from another journalist and giving it to him.

It was all supposed to be funny ha-ha, but the NPA then descended into a slough of despond - what if hacks were slipping one another the cards when no one was looking? - and its security men came up with a new system.

Each day we hacks have to report to Inspector Govender, a charming female member of the constabulary, and commander of the high court police contingent, who is seated in the courthouse courtyard.

She then tightly attaches to one's wrist a plastic bangle of the sort that it is attached to one's wrist when one is going in for surgery, or is put on to the wrists of the inmates of mentally challenged places of abode.

Each day's bangle is of course a different colour - they're a clever bunch, those NPA chaps - and without it no hack may venture past the police task force guarding the doors of the courtroom.

So you still have to be on the list to gain entry, and the courtroom is still too small to hold everyone who wants to go in.

Trying times for the fourth estate, my dears, trying times.

My concern is that the trial may descend into something of a sexual drama, for want of a better phrase. For example, one of the state witnesses, Professor Themba Sono, told the court a couple of times that Schaik "had this big cellphone which he always left on because he said the deputy president might call".

Why, I wondered, was Professor Sono so taken with Shaik's "big cellphone"? Were we dealing with a straightforward case of peanut envy, as a friend of mine used to call it? Then I heard that one of the witnesses who is appearing in the next few days - remember you read it here first! - is a former secretary of Shaik's, and that mention of some hanky-panky might possibly ... er ... come up.

I shall say no more, lest I be charged with contempt.

And then I won't get my little bangle tomorrow.

And what's worse - and this is why I am concerned - the NPA will have to find space for additional reporters from newspapers like the Daily Sun and Playboy.

With acknowledgements to Karen Bliksem and the Sunday Independent.