Red tape before revelations

The first two days of the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture dashed hopes of bombshell revelations, and were instead preoccupied with thrashing out the practicalities of what is bound to be an arduous two-year process.

The commission, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, was appointed to inquire, investigate and make recommendations into allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector.

Former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s 355-page State of Capture report — and the myriad allegations made against the politically-connected Gupta family — form the basis for the commission’s inquiry into whether there have been deliberate efforts to manipulate state institutions.

Those identified in the report as key witnesses to this purported duplicity include former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas, former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor and the former head of the government communication and information system, Themba Maseko. Although it was confirmed on Tuesday that Jonas would provide his testimony on Friday, journalists and the public were left to speculate about when the others would appear before the commission.

In his opening address on Monday, Zondo emphasised that it was important to first set out the scope of the inquiry.

“This is necessary to remind everybody what this commission is about… so that people who have that information or that evidence may come forward,” Zondo said, his droning cadence matched by the draught whistling through the sparsely populated room.

And so the day was devoted to addressing the procedural difficulties faced by the commission and to unpacking the minutiae of the legal terms of reference for the inquiry.

Zondo suggested that the hiccups the commission has experienced in getting down to work could be linked to uncooperative government departments.

He said the processing of security clearances for the commission’s investigators had yet to be resolved by the State Security Agency, despite having sent a written plea to President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene at the beginning of the month. Ramaphosa did so on Wednesday.

“For certain things we really have to depend on other people,” Zondo lamented.

He also broached the subject of the commission’s money problems. The inquiry’s budget is R230-million for its first six months‚ an amount believed to be the biggest in recent history. Zondo’s opening words were followed by a 90-minute address by the head of the commission’s legal team, Paul Pretorius SC, outlining the terms of reference for the commission in gruelling detail.

The legal representatives of those implicated in state capture allegations were then given the opportunity to air their concerns about the commission’s procedures.

Mike Hellens SC, appearing on behalf of Gupta patriarch Ajay Gupta, said the mechanics of the commission were not known to counsel and that they were given relatively short notice about the dates of witness testimonies.

The day ended with a sobering breakdown of the material evidence — forensic audits, transcripts of voice recordings, invoices— before the commission. The legal team’s Thandi Norman SC gave the equivalent of more than 122 boxes of documents, in electronic form, to Zondo.

On Tuesday, the commission got stuck into the nitty-gritty of government procurement processes. The first witness, treasury’s acting chief procurement officer Willie Mathebula, was tasked with laying out, as he put it, “the rules of the game”.

Mathebula’s testimony painted a grim picture of the abuse of procurement processes by some government departments and state-owned entities.He attributed half of all irregular tenders to the intentional abuse of the system and said deviations from procurement rules had,in recent years, become the norm.

“It’s a war that we are fighting to make sure that there is no abuse of the system,” Mathebula said.

Problems with the sound system meant that advocate Leah Gcabashe had to shout so that Zondo could hear her questions, and that the short breaks between Mathebula’s highly technical testimony were spent listening to the refrain of the commission’s audio technicians tapping on the microphones.

When Zondo’s turn came to question Mathebula, the deputy chief justice regularly admitted to knowing nothing about procurement processes — echoing the sentiment of most in the audience, which had by then thinned out considerably. 

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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