SA Today: What links the Spy Tapes, Seriti Commission and the Arms Deal?

helenzille2011bNext Tuesday, 03 September, the Gauteng North High Court will hear Jacob Zuma’s application for leave to appeal against the Court’s order compelling the National Prosecuting Authority to comply with the order of the Supreme Court of Appeal to hand over the record of decision (including the “spy tapes”) that were used as reasons by the NPA to withdraw 700 charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering against Jacob Zuma before he became President in 2009.

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is.

It describes just a small part of the many twists and turns that Jacob Zuma’s legal team has taken to make sure he never has to appear in court to answer the charges against him.

Even if the High Court refuses the President leave to appeal, we expect Zuma’s legal team to continue their delaying tactics.  After ten years of legal obfuscation, prevarication, evasion and stonewalling, they have still not exhausted all their options. Their next move would be to petition the Supreme Court of Appeal, directly, for leave to appeal against a High Court order to comply with a previous order of Supreme Court of Appeal handed down 18 months ago. And that way they will probably win another few months.

There seems to be no end to the detours lawyers can take on behalf of clients who have a bottomless pit of money. If it were not for the South African taxpayer, Jacob Zuma would long since have had his day in the dock.

The DA has already spent millions of its own money trying to get to the truth in this matter. We will not give up because the principles involved are so important to our democracy: that everyone is equal before the law and that the National Prosecuting Authority must act without fear, favour or political influence.

But President Zuma’s continued cynical use of taxpayers’ money to avoid handing over the “spy tapes” (that supposedly reveal a political conspiracy against him) was a particularly bitter pill to swallow in a week when the mineworkers of Marikana were refused the same advantage.

The Constitutional Court ruled last week that it could not compel the state to pay for the workers’ legal representation at the Farlam Commission of Enquiry into the tragedy that unfolded on the platinum belt a year ago. While we understand the Court’s rationale – that it could not dictate to the executive how to spend scarce public resources – it only serves to underscore how much public money is being squandered by our president protecting his personal interests.

Indeed, if we were to use the “public interest” as the yardstick for spending taxpayers’ money on court cases, we would stop funding the President’s endless diversions, and start funding the Marikana mineworkers so that they can appear before the Farlam Commission on a level playing field.

After all, the taxpayers are funding the police’s crack legal team of three advocates; and Lonmin, the mining company involved, is not financially constrained when it comes to legal representation. Each relevant government department has its own legal representatives for the Commission.

Yet the mineworkers are expected to go unrepresented.  If they were appearing in a court of law, they would qualify for legal aid. But this right does not extend to a Commission of Inquiry. We think this arbitrary distinction is unfair and places the mineworkers at a disadvantage from the start. This cannot be in South Africa’s interests.  We need to know the truth of what happened during that tragic week of August 2012. And legal representation for the miners will help us get there. As the old adage goes: Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

This brings us onto the controversial Seriti Commission into the Arms Deal where South African taxpayers are also covering the costs. The State Attorney will lead a team of advocates which will represent each government department involved. These are the Department of Defence and Military Veterans, Department of Trade and Industry and the National Treasury, former ministers who have been subpoenaed (Ronnie Kasrils, Mosiuoa Lekota and Alec Erwin) and the present minister in the presidency (the then minister of finance), Trevor Manuel, and former president, Thabo Mbeki.

We conservatively estimate that it is costing R41 999 200 per day. The total cost of the Commission is R101 874 284. Every witness is being cross-examined by lawyers acting for the government.

This means that if any interested party (such as the DA for example) wishes to challenge the state’s version of events, they would have to retain lawyers for the entire duration of the commission to cross examine witnesses in the same way. This is clearly unaffordable to any except those who can rely on the taxpayers’ “largesse”.

Apart from all the other problems plaguing the Seriti commission, perhaps the biggest is that it does not provide a level playing field to all parties so that we can eventually get to the truth of the corruption in the estimated R70-billion Arms Deal. The costs have ballooned from R30-billion since it was signed in 1999.

But every democracy gives its taxpayers a chance to rectify these gross abuses of power. That chance is called a general election.  That is the mechanism that a democracy offers the people to fire leaders who abuse their money to advance their private interests.

If voters re-elect their abusers, they have no-one to blame but themselves. After all, in a democracy people get the government they deserve.

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