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High court grants Zondo commission a three-month extension

The Pretoria high court on Monday granted the Zondo commission a three-month extension, until the end of September; meanwhile, the Constitutional Court indicated that it would rule on its application for a contempt order against former president Jacob Zuma on Tuesday.

Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo acknowledged when he approached the court a fortnight ago that he faced criticism for running further into extra time, but said he would not countenance concluding the commission’s work in a rushed manner.

He stressed that his concern included showing fairness to people implicated in testimony to the commission, which began its public hearings on entrenched state corruption in August 2018.

In his ruling on the urgent application, Judge Selby Baqwa agreed that the commission was doing critical work that needed to be completed properly for the sake of credibility.

He said it was not in the public interest that the commission conclude its inquiry in “an abrupt manner”.

In granting the commission a three-month extension in February, the same court had cautioned that it would be the last, but Zondo said evidence had come to light that compelled him to hear five or six more witnesses who would not be able to take the stand by the end of this month.

The commission conceded in argument to the Constitutional Court in March that it had abandoned hope of compelling Zuma to take the witness stand after he flouted a January ruling by the same court ordering him to obey summons to testify.

Just more than three months later, the court on Monday issued a directive that it would hand down judgment on Tuesday at 10am.

There have been mounting calls for the court to rule on the matter, given the public interest in the case and the fact that the application was argued on an urgent basis.

The apex court, where there is no possibility of appeal, has never handed down a sentence of direct imprisonment for contempt. The commission conceded that its application was unprecedented, but argued that Zuma’s attacks on the rule of law were so extreme that they merited a prison term of two years.

Some of the country’s most senior judges have grappled with the requirements, notably the burden of proof, for contempt rulings in the post-1996 dispensation, to accord these with the constitutional provisions against arbitrary deprivation of freedom.

The commission argued that it would be pointless to hand Zuma a suspended sentence in a bid to still bring him to testify, and said a punitive sentence was the only fitting sanctions for violating the authority of the court and launching a series of political attacks on the judiciary.

Zuma did not oppose the application, although the onus is on him to cast doubt on the assumption in law that he acted in bad faith, because summons to appear were issued, served on him and flouted.

At the time the commission approached the court, the former president had been implicated in state capture by more than 30 witnesses but the number has risen, with the commission hearing last week that money laundered by the Gupta family flowed towards his legal fees in the arms deal case.

The commission has so far cost about R900-million, but talks have for some time been ongoing between the department of justice and the treasury to ensure sufficient funding for it to wrap up its work.

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