/ 26 February 2021

Hlophe throws out Bongo corruption case

Former state security minister Bongani Bongo.
Off the hook: Former state security minister Bongani Bongo has previously said bribery allegations against him are a plot to tarnish his reputation and he intends to sue. (David Harrison/M&G)

Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe on Friday threw out the corruption charges against ANC MP and former minister Bongani Bongo for allegedly attempting to bribe a parliamentary law adviser to derail a probe into state capture at Eskom.

Hlophe dismissed the case four days after lawyers for Bongo filed a section 174 application, on the basis that there was no evidence on which a court would reasonably return a finding of guilt.

He also held that the credibility of parliamentary law adviser Ntuthuzelo Vanara, as the sole witness to the alleged attempt at bribery, had been called in doubt by contradictory testimony from colleagues in the legislature. 

“It is my judgment that Mr Vanara is not credible in some material respects. He is a single witness. Therefore, his evidence must be clear and satisfactory in all material respects,” Hlophe said in his ruling. 

The ruling brings the case to an abrupt end without Bongo having to defend himself against a charge that he asked Vanara to “name his price” in return for undermining a parliamentary inquiry into early allegations of wrongdoing at the power utility. 

The inquiry went ahead, with Vanara as evidence leader. It heard evidence of how Eskom executives bent over backwards to benefit the business empire of the Gupta brothers.

Hlophe, in his ruling, said another problem with Vanara’s evidence was that having a discussion about delaying or collapsing a parliamentary process is not in itself illegal, but would only become so if it is accompanied by an offer of gratification.

And Vanara confirmed that Bongo never proposed a specific amount of money or made arrangements for such to be paid into his bank account. 

The judge also faulted Vanara for reporting the approach by Bongo to his parliamentary superiors and not to the police. Vanara took the matter to Modibedi Phindela, the secretary to the National Council of Provinces, and Penelope Tyawa, the acting secretary of parliament.

Hlope found that there were material discrepancies between what these witnesses said Vanara told them. While hearing argument from the state last week, he had questioned why Tyawa said Vanara was “offered” a bribe, but Phindela termed it “promised” a bribe.

“The section 174 application cannot be refused in the hope that the accused will incriminate himself when he gives evidence, thereby closing material defects in the state’s case,” Hlophe said.

Bongo was appointed as state security minister in the Zuma administration around the time he allegedly tried to bribe Vanara. He was arrested in 2019, but has refused to relinquish his seat in the legislature.

He was recently named in testimony to the Zondo commission by witnesses from the State Security Agency as one of the ministers who oversaw the looting of the intelligence service to further former president Jacob Zuma’s political and personal aims.

There has been unhappiness in legal circles about Hlophe’s decision to assign the high-profile corruption case to himself at this time.

Hlophe is awaiting the findings of the Judicial Service Commission after a tribunal held in December interrogated his alleged attempt to influence Constitutional Court judges in 2008 to rule in favour of Zuma.