Publication: Sunday Independent Issued: Date: 2004-10-17 Reporter: Jeremy Gordin

Unflattering Portrayal of an Opportunist



Sunday Independent

Date 2004-10-17


Jeremy Gordin

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Schabir Shaik's image may have been dented, but boorishness is not a crime

It was not at all clear why Francois van Zyl SC, appearing this week in the Durban high court for Schabir Shaik, kept Professor Themba Sono in the stand for as long as he did.

For Sono, the state's first witness in the long-awaited trial of Shaik and 11 of his companies on charges of corruption and fraud, stuck to his version of events as though he had been joined to it with industrial glue.

And, when cross-examined on details, the deputy leader of the Independent Democrats, and in 1996 a director of Shaik's Nkobi Holdings (he resigned in February 1997), not only refused to be swayed but reverted to his main contentions like an automaton, adding more damaging details as he went along.

Sono's story was that Shaik was not sincerely interested in black economic empowerment (the ostensible reason for the existence of Shaik's business empire), but in making money, mainly for himself; that Shaik was an inveterate name dropper when potential business partners were present, especially the name of Jacob Zuma, then minister of economic affairs in KwaZulu-Natal and now deputy president; that, as far as he knew, Nkobi was always in difficult financial straits and was really just a name, without much substance in terms of expertise or resources; and that Shaik was, despite being a man "of vision", often inclined to boorishness.

But a desire for making pots of money, a penchant for dropping names, financial difficulties, flying by the seat of one's pants and boorishness are not crimes - and Judge Hilary Squires has made it clear that he is presiding at a criminal trial dealing with corruption and fraud and that he expects to sit in judgment of some hard facts.

He has also made it clear that, as far as he and his two assessors are concerned, it is Shaik who is on trial, not Zuma or anyone else.

So Billy Downer SC, the chief prosecutor in the trial, presumably called Sono to set a scene, to sketch the ambience of the world of Shaik and his companies.

But this does not explain why - having, of course, put it to Sono that his client contested much of what he said - Van Zyl did not simply let Sono have a couple of hours in the limelight and then let him go home, instead of allowing him to keep repeating to the court for another few hours what he had to say.

Perhaps there was a reason. Perhaps Van Zyl was looking forward to material he knows will come up later and that he wanted to contest now.

For what is clear is that this trial will consist of the presentation of complex evidence by more than 100 witnesses, that therefore only little shards of the story will emerge from the testimony of individual witnesses, and that these will have to be pieced together as the trial progresses.

Certainly the state's case involves some complex material. On Wednesday, Downer laid some of this out, using a Powerpoint presentation. The state alleges that a "general corrupt relationship" existed between Shaik and Zuma and that Shaik asked for a bribe of R500 000 a year for two years from French arms dealer Thomson (now Thint) in exchange for Zuma's protection against arms deal investigations and assistance in future deals.

The state argues that it does not matter what role Zuma played ultimately - what he did or did not do - because corruption can exist even where people do things they would do in the normal course of their jobs. The state says it needs only to prove that a corrupt intention existed.

The state is also arguing that Nkobi was in financial trouble, as was Zuma, and therefore it made no business sense for Nkobi to assist Zuma unless there were other reasons.

The state will also argue that, apart from the formal bidding process in the arms deal, there was a so-called informal (backdoor) process during which money may not change hands but in which influence is more important than, say, tender documents.

Shaik pleaded not guilty to all charges, saying that his friendship with Zuma was that and only that. It was because of the friendship and because he felt it was necessary for everyone's benefit that Zuma remain in politics that he had tried to help Zuma out of financial trouble.

He said there had been nothing corrupt about any of the payments to Zuma and none had been made with the intention of involving Zuma in a corrupt act.

Shaik admitted that R1,2 million had been written off - this is the amount of money that Zuma is said by the state to have benefited from, courtesy of Nkobi and other companies - but this had been a legitimate accounting error.

Tomorrow, either Shaik's former secretary, or the former secretary of Alain Thetard of Thomson, will take the stand. The testimony of both, and of Shaik's former secretary in particular, promises to be a great deal more dramatic than the arguments and testimony to which Squires has listened so far.

With acknowledgements to Jeremy Gordin and the Sunday Independent.