Reporter's notebook: How I nearly interviewed Moti, but was thwarted by bumbledom

Double-booked: Zunaid Moti posed for pictures but would not be interviewed. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Double-booked: Zunaid Moti posed for pictures but would not be interviewed. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

When flamboyant business tycoon Zunaid Moti told the Mail & Guardian he wanted an interview in person at his luxury office in Sandton, my jaw dropped.

It was the day after Moti was released on bail for allegedly ­co-ordinating a highway murder attempt on Naeem Cassim, a businessperson and grocery wholesaler from Brits in North West province. What could Moti gain from an in-depth interview with a reporter? I wondered. Nevertheless, I was interested.

Moti's public relations woman set the place and time: Wednesday, 3pm, at his office in Parkmore, Johannesburg, and emails exchanged between the PR agent and me confirmed the meeting's initial time.
We confirmed, by email,  that a photographer would come along, hopefully for portraits of Moti in his element.

It was all too perfect. Things could only go wrong.

Late on Wednesday morning Moti's PR woman called to reschedule the interview to  4.30pm, not 3pm, citing a hectic day of meetings.

"We double-booked," she admitted over the phone, adding that the meeting would not be in Moti's picturesque office but at the Michelangelo Towers in Sandton.

Extremely important
In my sincerest cheerful manner, I said the new time and place was no problem. Hearing from Moti was extremely important and the chance to speak to an embattled business mogul was all too tempting. But this was a trap. Of bureaucracy.

The PR woman led me into the office just after 4.30pm. The narrow meeting room was dominated by a table so enormous an assistant could not push her chair back far enough when trying to offer a greeting. (She wiggled out.)

Someone had laid out a meticulous arrangement of snacks - bottled water, several kinds of pastries, napkins.

Moti was not in the room, but ­family members crucial to his case were present: his uncle Rafik Mohamed and Rafik's cousin, Hanief Mohamed, who are important to the story of the alleged attack because Hanief has met and done business with Cassim. Hanief confirmed he owed Cassim R38000, which police say led to the alleged attack on Cassim's life.

Rafik grinned and winked at me as he spoke.

A sharply dressed woman handed me a stapled pack of documents relating to court cases against Cassim. The pack was unusual - the first page was a list of cases typed on something like Microsoft Word, but beneath  were more details on these cases in what looked like legal format, a kind of multispaced form document. I slid the pages into my backpack and figured I would look at them later.

Downhill
Finally, Moti entered, wearing a dark-blue pea coat suggestive of a ship's captain. His voice was hoarse and the rims of his eyes were thick and dark, like he had not slept.

From that moment the meeting went downhill.

Moti learned I had the packet and suddenly demanded that I take it out and remove all but the very first sheet. "These are confidential documents," he fumed at his staff, before chastising them further in a way that would not be printed in this newspaper and accusing them of doing a poor job. (I was so startled I forgot to ask how Moti had managed to get his hands on confidential documents.)

Then the unthinkable happened: Moti announced he had another meeting. He would not be speaking to me and had only meant to introduce me to his uncle, Rafik. Then he spoke generally about his innocence and pleaded to Rafik: "Not details. Details will hurt us."

The newspaper's photographer got a few shots of Moti seated in an adjacent room. But Moti wanted to look at the photos and frowned when he saw a preview on the camera's screen - "too dark", he said. Then he left. No mention of a follow-up meeting.

No idea
Now bitterly disappointed that a photographer and I had trekked for all of 15 minutes to Sandton from the M&G's Rosebank office, I tried to make the best of things by speaking to Rafik for half an hour, though he did not comment on crucial details of the Moti case, such as where he was on the night of Cassim's alleged attack and why Rafik felt the police had mis­handled the case against Moti.

As a final touch, to the depressing interview, Rafik attempted to show me a DVD he said contained damaging video evidence against Cassim, but it turned out to be an episode of the environmental television show 50/50.

More depressing was the moment when neither he nor his assistant could locate the clip they wanted to show in the hour-long video, even after the two of them hunched over for two minutes clicking almost random spots along the playback bar of the MacBook's DVD software.

I took a copy of the DVD anyway. Rafik insisted that I call him after watching it. He added he had given the tape to many reporters, but "they've ignored it".

On the way out, the PR woman apologised profusely and said she had "no idea" Moti would leave. While we waited for the lift in the hallway, she kept shaking her head. "That wasn't quite the way I thought it was gonna ..." she trailed off.

Later I checked the DVD's key moment at 16 minutes, but could find only footage of rhino poaching investigators sawing a dead animal into pieces, thick red blood pouring down its sides.

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