It’s Van vs Van in Shaik Battle
When politics and business collide or collude
When Johan van der Walt took the witness stand last Thursday, Judge Hillary Squires quipped that auditors were “the people sent in to bayonet the wounded”.
It was an apt choice of words.
Van der Walt grinned and replied: “Yes, my lord.”
The KPMG forensic division director then proceeded for seven days to ram the bayonet of forensic evidence into Schabir Shaik, the Nkobi Group boss accused of corruption.
Van der Walt’s evidence in the Durban High Court has narrated in meticulous detail the meetings, transactions, share transfers and memorandums that the state says constituted a conspiracy to cover up a series of illicit payments to Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
Van der Walt, 40, is a powerfully built, power-dressed former police commercial crime detective and forensic auditor with the former Office of Serious Economic Offences.
His assignments with KPMG have involved the cream of South Africa’s companies, the banking sector and various government departments. He has also carried out investigations in Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho, Hong Kong, Singapore, Britain, Switzerland, the Channel Islands and Zimbabwe.
His presentation represents nearly five months of intensive work by a team of 10 auditors brought in by the Scorpions to provide the forensic evidence that the state says will prove Shaik was guilty of corruption.
The 259-page report from which he delivered his evidence-in-chief is cross-referenced to a wall of supporting documents broken down into detailed annexures.
Van der Walt’s delivery is precise. He seldom raises his voice but he is not often asked by the judge or the lawyers to speak louder.
He focuses on the judge as he speaks. There might as well be nobody else in the courtroom.
Whether the public gallery is packed or empty, Van der Walt’s pitch does not change.
During a snatched smoke-break discussion, Van der Walt says he’s “exhausted” from so many days on the witness stand but raring to go for his cross-examination.
Court work, he says, is far better than preparing reports. “It’s in court that the work you’ve done really gets tested,” he says.
During breaks, Van der Walt shows a lighter side, apologising on occasion to journalists and lawyers alike for the weight of his presentation.
A member of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants, he resembles not at all the stereotype of the accountant as a little grey man.
The suits are bold. His shirts include bean-counter white, but extend to strong colours. Ties veer from pink to burgundy to Friday’s weird blue paisley.
Even Shaik’s brother Mo, himself no sartorial dwarf, was heard complimenting Van der Walt on his choice of shoes on the way out of the court building.
By Thursday morning the public audience had withered away to a paltry seven. The ANC Youth League’s Khulekani Ntshangase did pop in to talk to Shaik’s friend-cum-minder Costa Dranias but didn’t make it all the way into the courtroom.
By Friday the 11 lawyers in court outnumbered the public.
The numbing effect of so many hours of technical financial detail, money trails and cross-references to Annexures H and M has taken its toll on the brains of all but the most hopelessly addicted Shaik junkies.
It is not that Van der Walt’s delivery is boring. The sheer weight and complexity of the evidence he presents is intimidating.
“Hey,” says a visibly exhausted policeman on duty inside the court, “this is boring.”
“When are they going to give us people, not paper?”
As Van der Walt speaks, an assistant moves between the judge and his assessors, helping them to find references in the bulky annexures. On the first day of Van der Walt’s testimony, the judge remarked of this assistance: “I’ll certainly allow it and I hope he will give it. I doubt if I can find my way around this alone.”
Defence counsel Francois van Zyl has, in the main, remained seated and without objections as Van der Walt presents his evidence, gleaned from thousands of documents seized by the Scorpions in their 2001 raid on the Nkobi premises.
Van Zyl’s turn with Van der Walt no stranger to courtrooms as an expert witness in the Greg Blank and Allan Boesak cases will come this week, when cross-examination begins.
Van Zyl is constantly handed notes scribbled by Shaik, while Greg Johnson, the defence’s forensic accountant, sits next to Shaik and takes copious notes.
So far the state’s evidence paints a sharp picture of corruption, but it is still untested by either the Bench or the defence.
During cross-examination also expected to take two full weeks Van der Walt’s quality as a witness, and the quality of his evidence, will be under attack.
While some evidence will not be contested, the rest will be the battleground for a fiery confrontation.
Van Zyl comes with a reputation for steel-in-silk cross-examination, as was evident from his treatment of witnesses Professor Themba Sono, a former Shaik business associate, Bianca Naidoo, Shaik’s former secretary, and Susan Delique, former secretary to arms company boss Alain Thetard.
None of these were expert witnesses skilled in rebuttal and trained to avoid ambushes by wily defence counsel. Their exchanges with Van Zyl were merely a foretaste of what is to come.
The duel between Van Zyl and Van der Walt (or Van versus Van as it has been labelled by one courtroom wit) will be the first major challenge to the state’s case, and the most important of all.
Auditor faces new court marathon, this time being grilled by the defence
The numbing effect of so many hours of technical financial detail, money trails and cross-references to annexures H and M has taken its toll on the brains of all but the most hopelessly addicted Shaik junkies
With acknowledgements to Paddy Harper and the Sunday Times.