Northern Cape: Witness in John Block case fears for his safety
- DOUGLAS MTHUKWANE
- South Africa
- 03 Mar 2014 (South Africa)
A key witness in the Trifecta fraud case against Northern Cape ANC heavyweights John Block, Alvin Botes, Yolanda Botha, and Trifecta director Christo Scholtz fears for his safety after testifying for the State against Block. By DOUGLAS MTHUKWANE.
[Additional reporting by the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane).]
The Northern Cape ANC heavyweights implicated in the case are accused of receiving kickbacks from Trifecta property group tycoon Christo Scholtz and Trifecta itself between 2006 and 2010, in return for influencing provincial departments either directly or indirectly to rent office space at inflated rates in Trifecta’s favour – and reflecting bigger office space than they were actually leasing.
The accused deny this in their plea, stating that at the time they were not actually in the employ of the government.
Block, who was, and still is, a mere ANC Northern Cape chairperson of the ruling party, says he was doing ‘consulting’ work for the company’s empowerment partner, Sarel Breda, who died in a plane crash in March 2009.
The exact nature of these consulting services remains unclear.
Botha allegedly received a 10% stake in the Trifecta group, a R1.3-million renovation of her Kimberley home and R15,000 in cash – all after Breda’s death.
In his not-guilty plea, Scholtz claims that Breda took “full control of the day-to-day running of Trifecta” and that he, Scholtz, confined himself to the “financing of the group”.
Scholtz claims that Breda negotiated the lease agreements with the departments, advanced loans to Block, Botha and Botes, and offered them empowerment stakes or employment in the company.
Scholtz will have to explain why he, as the financier, did not pay more attention to how and why Breda spread Trifecta largesse and why, after Breda’s death, Scholtz continued and even augmented the benefits that allegedly flowed from Trifecta to Botha in particular.
The prosecution’s star witness, Eubrahim Crouch, worked in the provincial roads and public works department when Block was its MEC, and continued after Block left in 2003.
Crouch will testify that Block, who became the ANC’s provincial chairperson in 2005, asked him to “see how he could help” Breda to secure leases with government departments and kept up the pressure on Crouch until the leases were signed.
Crouch says he saw Block’s requests as “an instruction” even after Block stepped down as MEC, because Block was “a person with authority in the province”.
Block allegedly received payments of R1.4-million, shares in a Trifecta subsidiary and a R350,000 property renovation in return for leaning on department officials to favour Trifecta.
He claims that he was not employed by government between 2004 and 2008 when the leases were signed “and had to fend for himself for an income”. The benefits were not kickbacks but legitimate payments for consultancy services he rendered to Breda, Block argues.
Botha is perhaps the most exposed of the accused – she signed off on five of the seven leases as head of the social development department.
She is charged with contravening the Public Finance Management Act, which obliges accounting officers to safeguard public money. The prosecution alleges that she overruled her tender committee and unilaterally gave Trifecta what it was seeking, or even more generous terms.
Botha claims that the provincial government no longer employed her when the benefits accrued to her, as she had been an MP since May 2009.
Scholtz claims the renovation was a “loan” and that Botha has repaid a “substantial amount”.
Botha, who is also the provinial ANC treasurer, found that her credibility took a knock in 2011 after she failed to declare the benefits to Parliament. In 2012, a parliamentary ethics committee investigation found that the group “accrued from a generally corrupt relationship” with Trifecta.
Botes, now provincial MEC, was employed by Trifecta between May 2006 and April 2009. His family trust received a 10% stake in a Trifecta subsidiary.
Crouch believes he is being targeted for “daring to testify against Block” – a man who, by his own account, is revered as the “Big Chief”, he says. Block’s massive influence in the Northern Cape and in ANC structures should not be underestimated, says Crouch.
Crouch’s fears arose after receiving a letter from his employer, the Northern Cape Department of Transport, Safety and Liaison, about a previously approved salary progression. According to Crouch the letter arrived while he was on the witness stand. In it, the department demanded that he give reasons as to why an amount of R122,714 had been paid into his bank account and why this amount should not be recouped. The letter also stated that the money had been irregularly awarded.
The drama occurred in full view of a packed courtroom – a room full of Block’s sympathisers, mostly MECs, HoDs, tenderpreuners and a heavy media contingent.
According to documents in Daily Maverick's possession, Crouch’s salary progression was granted in November 2012. In terms of Public Service Regulations, read with the Senior Management Service (SMS) handbook, all SMS members must be subjected to a performance assessment system annually before any pay progression may be considered.
Crouch confirmed that former MEC Patrick Mabilo approved his request for a salary progression because he served as an acting director for thirteen years without benefits.
A colleague also approached Crouch in court from the Northern Cape Department of Transport, Safety and Liaison on 18 February, while Judge Violet Phatsoane went to fetch a document at one stage during the hearing. Mr. Kevin Williams, assistant-director in the department, approached Crouch on the witness stand and demanded the that witness sign the letter, saying, “Teken ontmiddelik, ons soek ons geld terug” (“Sign immediately, we want our our money back”).
Peter Serunye, lead prosecutor, intervened on the grounds that Williams was harassing Crouch.
Williams told Serunye: “Stay out of this, this is work-related stuff which doesn’t concern you.”
“You are not even allowed to be here,” Serunye retorted.
Crouch previously retracted a statement to the media in which he denied he was being threatened, because he did not want to “go the laborious route of opening another case” before testifying in the Trifecta hearing, as he believed this could be used against him by the defence. He did, however, state that he was afraid and informed Northern Cape Premier Sylvia Lucas via SMS, requesting that she call Steven Jonkers, head of the department, to order. Premier Lucas has confirmed receiving the complaint via SMS and promised to call in Jonkers to establish “this prima facie intimidation”, she said.
Crouch and Block were co-accused in 2003 after Block admitted to using taxpayers’ money to attend a jazz festival. Regional Court President Khandalizwe Ngadala, allegedly a friend of Block, acquitted both in 2006. Crouch alleges that his relationship with Block soured after Block and Jonkers “connived” with the prosecution to make him take the flack for Block’s financial indiscretions.
Whistleblower Glen Chase, who was an accountant in Block’s department and the main witness in that case, consequently laid criminal charges of defeating the ends of justice against Ngqadala and Jonkers. The case is currently before the NDPP for a final decision.
Both Jonkers and Williams were investigators during Block's initial case and are often seen with him in the current hearing, cracking jokes and looking relaxed.
Jonkers himself is yet to appear in court on fraud and corruption charges.
Daily Maverick has seen the latest letter to Premier Sylvia Lucas requesting urgent intervention. The Premier is on record that she will not relieve Block and Botes of their responsibilities as MECs because the allegations before court date back to when they were not part of government. “There is no current issue warranting action; we cannot act retrospectively,” she said soon after her swearing-in ceremony.
Unlike her predecessors, former Premier Hazel Jenkins and Acting Premier Grizelda Cjiekella-Lecholo, she is widely believed not to be easily manipulated. She has thus far never graced the court gallery with her presence since the trial started. Her appointment is believed to have been a fatal blow to Block’s faction, who wanted Cjiekella as Jenkins’ replacement. The latest leaks on her alleged misuse of her government-issued credit card to purchase fast food to the tune of R53,000 – and Block’s reference to leaders who eat Nando’s while volunteers eat bread and polony on the ground – feeds into this notion. (Block said this at a recent ANC provincial list conference.)
Lucas confirmed the complaint initially sent via SMS by Crouch. “I will call Jonkers in to establish this prima facie incident of intimidation,” said Lucas.
Meanwhile, Jonkers has denied intimidating Crouch. “The only reason why we sent him a letter while he was in the witness box is because he refused to sign for receipt at his residence,” he said.
Jonkers was the investigating officer in Block’s 2003 fraud and corruption case, but he had to be relieved of the case in favour of Colonel Piet Du Plessis for alleged interference. Whistleblower Glen Chase was dismissed from the same department for exposing Block.
He won the case, but the department did not abide by a ruling by the labour court, and a settlement of R90,000 was paid to Chase. Chase cried foul and claimed that he was victimised and attempts to his life were made after this expose. This is the basis of Crouch’s fears.
Ngqadala is alleged to have said before the conclusion of the 2003-2006 trial that he would not take an ANC Chairperson to jail. The Magistrates’ Commission recommended further investigation and action.
Paul Ramaloko, spokesperson of the Hawks, says that the state has a watertight case against Block and all his other cases before court. Ramaloko was referring to the salt mining case, where the supreme court of appeal ruled that Block’s company was mining with a fraudulent licence. “That matter is before the NDPP for a final decision,” Ramaloko explains.
Ramaloko was reacting to concerns that the NPA, through the Hawks, was not protecting Crouch and that a junior prosecution team was up against a well-experienced legal defence team of the Trifecta accused.
“This is the first leg of this case [Trifecta]. A lot more will come out of it. I cannot rule out more arrests,” Ramaloko said.
Jonkers, meanwhile, stated that he was in fact not aware that Crouch was a witness in the Trifecta matter.
Block's legal representative, Dali Mjila, denied influencing the outcome of the Trifecta hearing. This was after Crouch, in his letter to the Premier, implied that Mjila may have influenced the letter to be served to him in court. “Jonkers is also my client and is not beholden to me,” Mjila insisted.
The case continues. DM
Photo: Northern Cape ANC leader John Block, flanked by his wife, Noluthando (black dress) and under the watchful eye of his mother, Zodwa Bosman (head dress), speaks to a crowd of his supporters outside the Kimberley Magistrate's Court on Wednesday, 10 November 2010 after he was released on bail of R 100,000 related to fraud charges. Picture: Andre Grobler/SAPA