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Lawyers rush to bring comfort to Number One

Glynnis Underhill

A core group of President Jacob Zuma's allies in the legal world are rallying to defend him once again.

Comfort Ngidi says the lawyers leading the charge against the Nkandla report are not being paid. (Kevin Sutherland)

A group of senior lawyers from KwaZulu-Natal was in Johannesburg this week to convince members of the legal fraternity that there are "glaring flaws, inaccuracies, inconsistencies and contradictions" in the public protector's report on Nkandla.

Taking it upon themselves to protect President Jacob Zuma's honour, the 10 lawyers, led by Zuma loyalist Comfort Ngidi, say their campaign is "self-funded".

"There are some things you must do, not for money," Ngidi said this week. "We owe it to our colleagues in other places and in Johannesburg to explain to them why we are taking this stance and why there are flaws in that report," he said.

Other top legal figures involved include Solomuzi Mdledle and Mondli Qulo.

The lawyers have also taken their roadshow presentations "by invitation" to Durban, Newcastle and Pietermaritzburg. 

Public protector Thuli Madonsela's report, Secure in Comfort, revealed Zuma and his family had personally benefited from the R246-million upgrades to his Nkandla estate in KwaZulu-Natal. But, as in the past when Zuma faced serious legal challenges, his supporters are once again rallying to his defence.

Legal challengers
The lawyers have apparently taken it upon themselves, without consulting him, to challenge the report.

They are currently working overtime to prepare a court application to seek a review of the report and are planning to lay a complaint in Parliament against Madonsela.

Meanwhile, they will also be proffering their legal opinion on her 447-page report in Mpumalanga and the Free State.

They are hoping their message will filter through to other communities and the townships before the May 7 general elections.

The group, which includes some teachers aligned to the Zuma-supporting South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu), calls itself Concerned Lawyers and Educationists for Equality before the Law (Cleeblaw).

Among the organisations in Johannesburg that have invited the lawyers to give their presentation is the Progressive Professional Forum, which is headed by the former head of government communications, Jimmy Manyi. He declined to respond to questions put to him by the Mail & Guardian.

'Progressive movements'
Ngidi is the national chairperson of the group, which aims to attract professionals, academics, intellectuals and entrepreneurs who align themselves with "progressive movements". 

"The way it is working is that we prefer to say openly that people must invite us and we are starting with lawyers and educators, and we are saying they must raise their hands and invite us to present to them," Ngidi said.

"We are waiting for the invites from our colleagues in the Western Cape so we can come down.

"Our view is this is a legislative shortfall and Thuli is having a problem with the legislation. We need consensus to say we have a legislative shortfall, and it must be jacked up here and there.

"Even though I am the national chairperson of the forum, I will be there in my individual capacity as a lawyer," Ngidi said.

"We feel we owe it to society to pay for this from our own pockets. If we were paid any money, we would then lose our independence and you must do what people want. If an IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party] member walks in and says he wants to part of it, then we don't have to ask permission from anyone." 

Travesty
Other top legal figures believe what the lawyers are doing is a travesty – that they are undermining Madonsela and the office of the public protector.

"I wish we could clone Thuli Madonsela and she could become the president of this country," a respected legal figure, who is in state employ and did not want to be named, said. "She is exactly what the country needs to get us out of the mess we are in right now."

Another respected attorney, who is closely aligned with the ANC, said he believes the lawyers when they say they are taking the initiative themselves without consulting Zuma, but thinks they must "feel obligated" in some way.

"If they really wanted to do something good, they would do human rights work, not something like this. There are so many real victims out there who never see justice; why are they not rather helping them?"

A copy of Mdledle's presentation, which he delivered at the Durban City Hall, reveals that the lawyers believe there are "glaring flaws, inaccuracies, inconsistencies and contradictions in the report", which he said has prompted them to stand up and challenge a "miscarriage of justice". 

Far-reaching consequences
The consequences of Madonsela's report are far-reaching, said Mdledle. Criminal cases are being instituted against Zuma, the opposition is talking about impeaching the president and advertisements have been taken out by other political parties based on what is believed to be "the correct content of the report", Mdledle wrote.

The Sadtu provincial secretary, Mbuyiseni Mathonsi, joined the lawyers and delivered a presentation under the Cleeblaw banner in the same city hall last week.

Mathonsi said Madonsela had miscalculated her figures when assessing what was spent on security upgrades at Nkandla, and said the report had been calculated to further an agenda being waged against the president in particular and the ANC in general.

"What is said is that even people we trusted as good thinkers have just fallen victims [to] this propaganda; they have swallowed it [hook], line and sinker and are running with it like headless chickens," he said.

"Some of us refuse to be used in that agenda; we refuse that our capacity to think and arrive at our own decisions [can] be taken away from us or be subsumed under that of propagandists.

"We also refuse to accept that the public protector is our lord who art in heaven and, therefore, is above public scrutiny."

Election candidate
Ngidi, who is taking time out from his private law practice to hold meetings with the lawyers and to give presentations, is number 57 on the ANC's provincial election list in KwaZulu-Natal.

But several legal figures are not happy that he is challenging the Nkandla report. Ngidi recently completed an independent investigation into alleged irregularities in the office of a controversial Zuma appointee, the KwaZulu-Natal director of public prosecutions, advocate Moipone Noko, who is facing a mutiny by some of her staff.

Because of that, National Prose­cuting Authority staff said they were "appalled" when they learned that Ngidi is involved in challenging the public protector's report, leading them to ask why he had been asked to do the investigation. 

But Ngidi is unfazed by the criticism and said he was appointed because he is one of the most senior and experienced lawyers in the province.

Ngidi's support for Zuma appears unwavering. He describes Zuma as a "great leader" who has enriched people's lives by dealing with issues such as HIV and education, and who brokered peace deals during the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s.

'No comment'
He declined to comment on the president's personal life. "I am not an expert in that field," he said, laughing. "I am also not at liberty to talk about people's personal lives. So no comment about that."

Ngidi is scathing about Madon­sela's pronouncements in her report.

"We have been told the public protector feels it is not within our jurisdiction to have our say, but we understand we are free to do so," he said.

"It has nothing to do with her and she doesn't fully understand how the legal system works as she has never practised as an advocate."

In response to the lawyers' campaign, Madonsela said, through her spokesperson Kgalalelo Masibi, that she is "saddened by the shenanigans" of the lawyers. She said their campaign will "cheapen the

dialogue on a report that raises serious ethical questions for our nation".

Her sadness is compounded by the fact that the ringleaders are lawyers; and even though they are criminal lawyers, they should know that "they don't have a case".

Responding to the lawyers' "offer" to educate her, Madonsela said: "The public protector came to this position with relevant experience and they are, in fact, in the woods in this area of law."


Campaign falls back on well-worn strategies

The KwaZulu-Natal lawyers' campaign is reminiscent of the support President Jacob Zuma received from a number of benefactors when he faced both corruption and rape charges before he became the country's leader.

Zuma's supporters leapt to help him in 2005, when he was fired as deputy president by former president Thabo Mbeki after his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of soliciting bribes for him. It was during this time that the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust and website were set up and run by his many ANC supporters. 

That same year, Zuma was charged and later found not guilty of raping a 31-year-old family friend at his home in Johannesburg, and  legal documents and reports about his trial were posted on the website. It also carried details of the bank account where people could make donations towards his legal defence and upkeep. 


Like the lawyers, the Friends of Jacob Zuma helped the president fight rape and
corruption charges. (Dean Hutton)

Although the initial corruption charges against Zuma were dropped in 2006, the funding helped when the following year the now disbanded Directorate of Special Operations (also known as the Scorpions) served an indictment on Zuma to stand trial on various counts of money ­laundering, corruption and fraud.

Barnabas Xulu is a high-profile attorney who devoted himself to administering the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust in KwaZulu-Natal. Well known in political circles, Xulu lost many clients when he focused his attention on raising money for Zuma's long-running legal battles against his corruption and rape charges. 

"I was involved in student movements before the ANC was unbanned, and when I helped set up the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust, my law practice was largely concentrated on work for the Durban municipality," Xulu said.

"I lost that client unexpectedly when I got involved in setting up the trust, and no explanation was given. I don't regret any of it. I learnt a lot and expected nothing in return for helping the ANC."

Xulu eventually moved to Cape Town, where he started up a law firm, Xulu Attorneys Inc, and he now focuses on human rights and administrative law, helping vulnerable communities and former miners. 

Nurtured by his many supporters, Zuma's own luck turned when, in September 2008, the ANC national executive committee resolved to recall Thabo Mbeki as head of state and he resigned from his post. Kgalema Motlanthe served as the president of South Africa until May 2009, when in a remarkable turnaround Zuma succeeded him. 

Zuma was inaugurated as president of South Africa just two weeks after the corruption charges were unexpectedly withdrawn against him by the National Prosecuting Authority.


Legal eagles circle around Nkandla review

These are some of the other legal figures who, under the banner of Concerned Lawyers and Educationists for Equality Before the Law (Cleeblaw), are involved in the court application to seek a review of public protector Thuli Madonsela's Nkandla report:

  • Solomuzi Mdledle trained as a criminal lawyer, but is not widely known. Mdledle is the instructing attorney in the application that will be lodged in court shortly by the Cleeblaw lawyers;
  • Advocate Mondli Qulo is a junior counsel who met with senior counsel this week to discuss the application for the review; and
  • Mdu Nkomo is a senior attorney who is part of the legal team filing the application. 

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