The day before Chumani Maxwele's R1.4-million lawsuit against Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa for wrongful arrest by President Jacob Zuma's VIP bodyguards was about to be heard in court this week, he was made a settlement offer of R80 000.
In effect, it derailed the start of Maxwele's long-awaited court case on Monday. By Wednesday, his lawyer Neil O'Brien had also unexpectedly withdrawn from the case.
Still traumatised by the police abuse he suffered, the 28-year-old political science student told the Mail & Guardian afterwards he felt the amount of money offered did not match the gravitas of his damages claim following his arrest in February 2010.
He alleges his hands were tied behind his back with cable ties and his head covered with a black hood after he was picked up while jogging on De Waal Drive in Cape Town. Accused by the bodyguards of pointing his middle finger at Zuma's blue-light motorcade, which he has fiercely denied, his arrest took place in full view of witnesses.
Maxwele was detained overnight and released without being charged the next day. "The settlement is tantamount to bullying and makes a mockery of justice," he said. "I don't think justice will be served by reaching a settlement behind closed doors."
Mthethwa's spokesperson Zweli Mnisi declined to say whether an offer had been made to Maxwele when contacted by the M&G on Monday.
O'Brien also said he was prohibited from commenting on what had transpired. "All I can say is that I have no clear instructions from my client," he said on Monday afternoon. "The matter is likely to be postponed."
The M&G could not reach O'Brien on Tuesday but on Wednesday morning he responded to a text message: "Matter was postponed Monday," he texted. "No further comment."
Moments later, a stunned Maxwele told the M&G that O'Brien had just informed him that he had withdrawn from the case. "It's unheard of, I think," Maxwele said despondently. "I don't know the nature of his decision."
It has been a tough week for the University of Cape Town student, who has waited for more than three years for the matter to come to court. What he really wanted was his day in court. "In many ways, this case ceased to be about me a long time ago," he said.
Last Sunday, the day before his case was due to be heard, he met O'Brien and his legal team to discuss his case. To his surprise, they presented him with a settlement offer made by Mthethwa's lawyers. His legal team wanted him to consider it and to come back to them with a decision, he said.
On Monday morning, Maxwele appeared determined to proceed with his court case and expressed confidence in O'Brien, who had flown to Cape Town from Port Elizabeth and offered to represent him on a contingency basis after his much-publicised arrest.
"I want the court to make an order," said Maxwele, before heading to the courtroom to meet his legal team. "Ultimately, the court order has a weight that goes far beyond a settlement. It has an influence for future [cases]."
An hour and a half after the court case was due to start, Maxwele was still unclear on what was happening with his case. His legal team was nowhere to be seen and, although by then several journalists were waiting outside the courtroom, its doors remained locked. Maxwele's legal team was in chambers, he said, and he was asked to join them.
"I'll come back and let you all know what happens," he told the assembled journalists.
Maxwele later told one of the journalists who contacted him by phone that they had reached a "dead end".
Hours later, Maxwele told the M&G he had spent a long time in talks in chambers.
According to his understanding of the matter, his legal team's contingency fees would be deducted from the R80 000 settlement offer. As he was given no quantitative figure of what the fees might be, he had asked his legal team to go back and negotiate that the state would pay the legal fees, over and above the settlement offer.
Although the matter of the damages claim now remains unresolved, Mthethwa has launched a last-ditch attempt to avoid having to apologise to Maxwele.
Mthethwa has also applied for a review of an appeal finding by the South African Human Rights Commission, which upheld its earlier ruling that he should apologise to Maxwele.
Student relives trauma of blue-light arrest
"I waved my hand, 'hamba, hamba', because the noise was very excessive," Chumani Maxwele told the Mail & Guardian a day after his arrest in 2010. "I think there were six cars and all of them seemed to have sirens going."
Maxwele alleged President Jacob Zuma's VIP unit had fabricated the story that he had pointed his middle finger at the president and sworn at his bodyguards.
Describing his arrest, Maxwele alleged he was shoved into a vehicle and his hands tied behind his back with cable ties.
"They said, 'Who do you think you are?'," Maxwele claimed. He said the ranting continued while they drove and it was only at this point that he realised that it was the presidential motorcade.
"They said to me: 'How can we hate white people who disrespect the state president, and now here are you, a black person, disrespecting the state president?' Then they got a big black bag and they pulled it over my face so I couldn't see anything," he alleged. "I felt unable to breathe."
The men removed the bag from his head at the president's residence in Rondebosch and asked for his name and ID number, he said.
At the Rondebosch Police Station, he was introduced in the charge office: "Here is the man who disrespected the president."
A Rondebosch policeman told him the reason for the arrest was "nonsensical". He was transported to Mowbray police station, where he was "introduced" again.
"They were laughing and joking that I had said the president had seven wives."
Maxwele alleged he was kept overnight in a cell without a bed and offered no food. When he tried to sleep on the floor, he was told to sit on a chair. The next morning he was put in a communal cell at the Wynberg Magistrate's Court. At 4.30pm that afternoon he was released, without appearing in court.