Heath in Zuma Firestorm
Former deputy president's court appearance marred by row over judge
Jacob Zuma's first appearance in court today has been overshadowed by the row surrounding Willem Heath, the former corruption-busting judge now acting as his legal adviser.
Although Heath is adamant no conflict of interest will arise from his role as head of the special investigating unit into the arms deal, senior jurists disagree.
Norman Arendse SC, who chairs the General Council of the Bar of South Africa, said: "He has resigned as a judge and as a practicing advocate he is qualified to act. The only issue is whether there is any conflict of interest that may have arisen from prior work he did while head of the special investigating unit."
Arendse added that if, for example, Heath testified for either the prosecution or the defence - a prospect legal brains consider a near certainty - that would be seen as a conflict of interest.
A prominent Johannesburg attorney, who did not wish to be named, said that even if there was no conflict it at least created the perception of one.
The attorney said that as a legal practitioner Heath would have a professional duty to avoid conflicts of interest.
Last night, Heath admitted he had been "extremely reluctant to take part and have only done so under my conditions".
He told The Star his reluctance was based on "the sensitive nature of the case".
Heath said he had wanted to minimise the risk that people would "react negatively" to his decision.
"I expect people's views (on my decision) to be aired, but with one exception the general reaction has been very neutral," he said.
"There's no way I am going to elicit any conflict. I am going to advise Zuma openly and honestly. I told him there were possibilities that I could be called (as a witness) and he accepted that," Heath said.
If he were called as a witness, Heath said he would only repeat evidence he had already led to previous commissions of inquiry.
"My other conditions were that an independent legal team would have to brief me, as I did not want to be (seen to be) associated with his team," he said.
Heath was loath to name the attorneys who had briefed him, saying only that they were a Cape Town firm.
Businessman Richard Young, owner of CCII - the company that lost out to French arms company ADS in the arms deal - says he gave Heath five files full of sensitive information about the deal.
Young is furious because he believes that Heath's association with Zuma, who is accused of forcing CCII out of the arms deal, could compromise the R149-million case he has brought against the government.
He also believes Heath could be called as a witness in Zuma's trial and that he could complicate matters for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
Zuma faces two charges of corruption, the second of them alleging that he was bribed to use his influence to stop any investigation into the arms deal.
As Heath's unit was the only agency involved in investigating the matter, legal figures said, it almost beggared belief that he would not be called as a "chain" witness.
But last night NPA spokesperson Makhosini Nkosi was unwilling to comment on the case or the possibility that Heath would be called as a prosecution witness.
Young said: "Mr Heath himself was involved in many ultra-sensitive meetings and had, and may still have, access to sensitive evidence on the arms deal... which overlaps both his new client's area of involvement as well as a major civil damages action by CCII Systems, which is in progress.
"This situation is a clear and untenable conflict of interest."
With acknowledgements to Alameen Templeton, Shaun Smillie, Kevin Ritchie and The Star.