In just over an hour at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture on Thursday, evidence leader Vincent Maleka became the symbol of South Africa’s law in the face of a family who have played fast and loose with the young constitutional democracy.
By trying to cross-examine the witnesses who have attested to their attacks on the state via video-link from Dubai – instead of in person – the Guptas were playing to type.
Since they arrived in South Africa in 1993, the family has treated the country like a place of purchase, where everyone and everything had a price. An associate once said that Ajay Gupta would sprawl on a chaise longue at the family’s Saxonwold mansion and joke to visitors:
“You want to be a minister? I can make you a minister.”
A friend, whose story is yet to be told, was summoned to the garish house and offered a job as CEO of a parastatal if major contracts were put their way. The highly qualified executive was horrified.
At the bling and now infamous family wedding at Sun City, reports revealed they only wanted their guests massaged and served by white beauty therapists and waiters.
The plane-landing at Waterkloof, the attempts to bribe politicians like Mcebisi Jonas, the treatment of their staff at ANN7 as revealed in the book Indentured by the founding editor Rajesh Sundaram, are all evidence of how they saw South Africa – neocolonials in a 21st century banana republic at the foot of Africa.
By applying to cross-examine, via video-link from Dubai, Jonas and former government spokesman Themba Maseko, who has testified to being bullied and threatened by Ajay Gupta, the Guptas revealed an arrogance that those who know them say is typical.
On Thursday, they got short shrift from Maleka, who decimated the request to allow them to testify from, I guess, the Emirates Hill mansion in Dubai, the gilded bolt hole the fugitives from justice now call home.
A decorated silk and the protegé of former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, Maleka first aimed a dagger at the Gupta pledges to do the right thing, as outlined earlier in the day by their lawyer, Advocate Mike Hellens SC.
“We would submit that the type of undertaking by the Guptas is not worth the promise it is made of,” Maleka said, his voice’s cadence lifting along with his eyebrows as he said he would address the family’s request to cross-examine “at a venue of their own choosing and comfort, outside the reach of the law”.
The subtext – this is simply not how the law works as none of the commission’s powers had authority outside South Africa.
Would the commission have to trek to Dubai, asked Maleka? And would a corruption weary and cash-strapped public take kindly to the public purse splurge, he asked with rhetorical flourish.
The Guptas had argued, through Hellens, that they could not come back to South Africa because they did not trust the Hawks or the National Prosecuting Authority.
“(On this version) they don’t trust that the judiciary would come to their assistance,” said Maleka, before recalling that the family had sung the praises of the rule of law when their company, Oakbay, had succeeded in a court case.
“Can you (at once) flee a legal system and want the protection and benefit of that system?” asked Maleka, as he asked Zondo to rule that the Guptas could indeed cross-examine witnesses to State Capture but only if they came to South Africa to do so.
And he asked Zondo to rule against their wish to spring their own evidence on witnesses instead of following established rules which meant each side saw the other’s testimony before appearances.
“The inquisitorial process (which the commission follows) has an end to it and that end is not to trick witnesses, not to scare witnesses but to get to the root of the problem. The restrictions they want to impose will browbeat witnesses and discourage others (from coming forward).”
Maleka’s performance on Thursday was a feat of law in the face of lawlessness from a family now classified as being fugitives from justice.
Zondo will rule next week on the Gupta family’s video request, but the judge also set out that there were only two ways to get them to testify: to allow the video link or to use his powers of subpoena. DM
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