/ 21 January 2021

Secret meetings with Zuma could sink Mkhwebane

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane Appears In Court On A Perjury Charge
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said she would abide by the court’s decision. (Gallo Images/Lefty Shivambu)

Alleged lies about clandestine meetings with former president Jacob Zuma could sink public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who is facing three perjury counts related to her R3.2-billion Absa Bank report. 

The public protector, who was represented by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ former chairperson, advocate Dali Mpofu, cut a lone and dejected figure in the box as she made her first appearance on Thursday at the Pretoria magistrate’s court. 

This was after the Directorate for Priority Crimes Investigations (the Hawks) issued a summons to her last month, and the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in Pretoria, Sibongile Mzinyathi, decided to prosecute.

In a bold statement on the strength of its case, the NPA asserted: “The investigation is done, and the state is ready for trial.”

It is unclear whether the former president would be called, either by the state or by Mkhwebane, to give evidence at the mooted trial. 

In the charge sheet against Mkhwebane, the NPA alleges that the public protector lied under oath — in November 2017, April 2018 and June 2018 — when she deposed three affidavits in filing papers to appeal adverse findings made against her office by the high court in Pretoria. 

Mkhwebane’s alleged lies are related to her June 2017 report, which found that the South African government and the South African Reserve Bank failed to recover R3.2-billion from Absa. 

This was for the R1.5-billion “lifeboat” loan, at 1% interest, the central bank gave the now-defunct Bankorp bank between 1985 and 1991, and again in 1992.

Bankorp, which Absa acquired when the latter was formed in 1991 through an amalgamation of various other banks, was facing total collapse when the Reserve Bank granted it the loans at low interest rates. 

In her June 2017 report, Mkhwebane found that the government and the Reserve Bank did not implement the CIEX report to recover the Bankorp/Absa loans, stemming from a 2010 complaint to the public protector’s office. CIEX is a United Kingdom-headquartered asset-recovery company.

“Among others, the remedial action set out by the accused [Mkhwebane], [who] directed that the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee take steps to amend section 224 of the Constitution to strip the [Reserve Bank] of its primary objective to protect the value of the currency and to change the consulting obligation with the minister of finance,” reads the NPA charge sheet against Mkhwebane.

The Reserve Bank reviewed these findings and had the remedial actions set aside by the high court in Pretoria. 

Mkhwebane had also ordered that the 1998 Special Investigating Unit (SIU) proclamation, which was to probe monies owed by Absa and other companies to the Reserve bank, needed to be reopened and amended. 

Absa, the finance ministry and the treasury filed applications to review the remedial action related to the SIU, to which Mkhwebane deposed an answering affidavit to the applications in November 2017. 

Advocate Dali Mpofu (left) with Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane ahead of her first court appearance. (Supplied)

The NPA alleges that the public projector lied under oath in her affidavit, saying she had only met Zuma once in April 2017 to discuss her CIEX report, “while knowing that the declaration was false”. 

Prosecutors further allege that, in Mkhwebane’s April 2018 affidavit, which sought direct access to appeal to the Constitutional Court after the Absa/Treasury review application went against her, she said she had had a second meeting with Zuma.

“The purpose thereof was to clarify the [former president’s] response to the provisional report, while knowing that the purpose declared was not correct”.  

According to the charge sheet, the third perjury count stems from Mkhwebane’s June 2018 replying affidavit in her direct access application.

“She declared that she did not discuss the final report [or] new remedial action with the [former president] on 7 June 2017, while knowing that it was not true”. 

Mkhwebane was released on Thursday, and the matter was postponed until March for the resolution and management of pre-trial issues.