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Keeping up with the Commission: Zondo commission explained

This year has been all kinds of challenging, so if you’ve struggled to keep up with the Zondo commission, you’re not alone. Here’s a round-up of what you’ve missed.

By Erin Bates

Look, I get it. This year has been all sorts of rough, taxing and wacky. At one stage soldiers were on the country’s streets, charging through neighbourhoods, roughing up and even killing civilians.

In March, there was no way of knowing how the rest of 2020 would pan out. It was scary.

Things soon got alarmingly real. Hospital workers bore the brunt of rising infections, clinics were equipped in haste, and expedited tender processes (of course) made way for fleecing. Meanwhile, stockpiles of wine and cigarettes petered out and withdrawal hit hard. The ban created a gap for smugglers and black-market traders to leverage the collective anxiety.

Most worryingly, of course, there were alarming statistics on rising cases and deaths. Coronavirus went from out there to in here: it circled nearer and nearer to home.

With all that going on, from the deathly serious to the admittedly shallow, chances are you simply did not have the time or energy to monitor news on state capture in detail. How could you, between the existential dread brought on by lockdown, trying to keep life and limb vaguely functional, and snacking?

You might have caught the most jaw-dropping, eye-popping claims about Bosasa, the Guptas, former President Jacob Zuma, and countless dodgy tenders at parastatals. Proceedings have picked up pace, and topics are covered at speed.

But there’s a lot more to the story than that. So, here is a general quick overview of proceedings from a journalist who has been covering the bulk of hearings for more than two years, filing reports on television, radio and online.

In the beginning…

The Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud kicked off with public sittings in August 2018. It was supposed to conclude in a matter of months but was extended a few times.

Considering its wordy title, the process has also become popularly known by shorthand names, like the Zondo Commission and the State Capture Inquiry. With unbelievable patience, the commission’s chairperson, Justice Raymond Zondo, has presided over the near 300 days of hearings so far. (Zondo is also the Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the country).

In early 2020, a high court judge drew a line in the sand. She ordered that hearings must conclude by March 2021. As it’s unlikely there will be hearings throughout December 2020, approximately four months remain of the commission’s work.

Razzle dazzle and breaking the law

So far testimony includes claims of mob-style cash drops, furtive meetings in glittering hotels, haggling at an Indian fashion show, cash stuffed into a Louis Vuitton handbag, and plotting in Melrose Arch. That is some of the juicy stuff.

There is the razzle dazzle evidence and then there is flagrant lawbreaking. The two are closely linked, and Zondo has heard ample evidence of the more sobering kind.

Think: interested parties intimidating witnesses, rural whistle blowers hounded by those loyal to corrupt politicians, a witness fleeing the country in fear for her life, and the corrupt stealing billions meant to ensure a “better life for all” as envisaged by the Constitution of South Africa.

The commission’s investigators and lawyers collaborate on different streams of evidence. In the past month, for instance, Zondo has heard of a sketchy R1-billion housing project in the Free State.

Few houses were built. Building materials were dumped on site or never delivered. Contractors took the money and ran, with no immediate recourse from government. Over a decade since the Free State housing racket was conceived, no one is behind bars. Some of those involved claim this is because the process benefitted those in political power, including then Premier Ace Magashule (who is now in the powerful position of Secretary General of the ANC).

The housing project shares distinct parallels with a fraudulent, wasteful asbestos project in the same province. One of the partners in the multi-million Rand contract, tender tycoon Edwin Sodi, is now an accused person in court.

Authorities have seized his fleet of luxury cars and lavish properties countrywide, pending the outcome of litigation launched by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

Meanwhile, the inquiry’s main witness on Bosasa, (the company awarded billions of Rands in government tenders, allegedly for kickbacks to politicians and officials) former COO Angelo Agrizzi has appeared in court, been denied bail on account of being a flight risk, and landed up in hospital pending his next court appearance.

From mid-October, Zondo heard further evidence on corruption at two parastatals, Eskom and Transnet. In both cases, suspect events and dubious tenders allegedly furthered the interests and lined the pockets of the Guptas, and those of their allies.

The main man

As for the main man, Zuma, he is (still) playing cat and mouse with the commission. Zuma is plainly reluctant to return to the commission. Zondo is insistent Zuma must appear for a week’s evidence starting on Monday, November 16, 2020. He has granted a summons, which technically forces Zuma to pitch up.

It is apparent Zuma is hellbent on avoiding a second appearance before Zondo. His only appearance to date in mid-2019 was a masterclass in political gaslighting: Zuma insisted he could not recall events, did not remember conversations, and then outright denied many of the main allegations raised.

He then raised allegations of a long-standing political conspiracy led by two foreign intelligence agencies in cahoots with South African forces, intent on destroying his political career.

Over five days of filibustering Zuma muddied the waters before momentarily withdrawing cooperation altogether on the last day. He strode out of the auditorium to a throng of steadfast supporters and, for all intents and purposes, has not looked back.

Soon after Zondo set down a date to hear the summons application against Zuma, the former President’s foundation accused the second-most-senior judge in the country of having an “obsession” with Zuma.

What’s the point?

When the commission’s work is over, the final report will go to the President, then parliamentarians will debate its findings. While Zondo is likely to recommend prosecutions, his input is not binding. So, in some ways, it is reasonable to ask, ‘What’s the point?’

Since a change in regulations this year, investigators who have wrapped up their work at the commission can join a special unit at the NPA. The NPA’s Investigative Directorate benefits from these investigators’ in-depth knowledge.

The investigators have details on financial flows out of South Africa, insight on the wealth of data on the #GuptaLeaks hard drive, sight of numerous bank records proving money laundering, and overall expertise on state capture.

Still, it is up to law enforcement agencies to hound those liable. The commission is not a prosecutorial process: it does not try the accused, declare a verdict and sentence the guilty. Think of it more as a fact-finding mission – or, if you lean toward the cynical – a moment of self-reflection.

You might go so far as to see the inquiry as a great show, with little substance. In other words: it makes it seem like government is addressing state capture. However, the commission is a process which will not directly nail anyone (except in the court of public opinion, perhaps).

The heavy lifting demanded to nab state capture criminals must be done by the NPA (and its Asset Forfeiture Unit, which seizes the proceeds of corruption for the state), the Hawks, the South African Police Service, the South African Revenue Service and the Special Investigations Unit.

While proceedings on government procurement and legislative frameworks are vital to the commission’s work, hearings on these relatively dry topics don’t capture (hah, see what I did there) the public imagination. So, if recent evidence passed you by, that might be the reason.

Compiling the final report is going to take incredible brain power. The document will list Zondo’s findings, including his determination on whether or not state capture occurred (duh), and recommendations on how to prevent it in future (yikes).

Zondo has chaired the commission with a steady hand thus far, and it is clear that he will not put up with any further avoidance tactics by the likes of Zuma: Zondo sets dates (and witnesses don’t call the shots). He expects Zuma to testify next month, while Zuma aims to have Zondo recused. If you are the betting type, probably wise not to put down any money on Zuma’s return.

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