South Africa

DAYS OF ZONDO

Vytjie Mentor wraps up testimony after a day of weak links and comebacks

Former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor is seen during the commission of inquiry into state capture on February 11, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

Tension ran high at the State Capture inquiry on Tuesday where former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor’s legal team questioned an alleged disproportionate presentation of information critical of her evidence by the commission’s legal team. This came as Mentor’s credibility took centre stage amid a striking dearth of corroborating evidence for some of her claims.

The strain of inconclusive strands of evidence began to take its toll on former ANC backbencher Vytjie Mentor, who concluded her testimony before the State Capture inquiry early evening on Tuesday.

Author of the self-published book, No Holy Cows, Mentor was initially heralded as a potential star witness in the case against the Guptas and former President Jacob Zuma.

But she has had to testify to events going back nearly nine years and a lack of independent corroboration in respect of some parts of her testimony made Mentor seem suspicious and somewhat desperate to sew things up at times.

Beyond her initial colourful stint in the witness box in 2018, her claims increasingly require a deeper dive for back-up — no doubt frustrating for Mentor, who then resorted to questioning the validity of official records obtained by the commission from the Department of Home Affairs and South African Airways as well as a cellphone bill produced by one of the implicated parties, former Zuma aide Lakela Kaunda — all because they don’t back up her claims.

There are several key points to which Mentor testified that the commission’s legal team dissected through official records or statements from other witnesses in a bid to get to the truth about her claims that the Guptas had offered her a Cabinet post back in 2010 — and that Zuma had appeared in the family’s home to calm her down as she loudly expressed her agitation.

On Monday there was one major win when records produced by Emirates airline confirmed that she had flown on the same first-class flight to China as two Gupta brothers, Ajay and Rajesh, Duduzane Zuma and a yet-to-be-identified “chairman” of their company.

But confirmation of the crucial Saxonwold meeting, one that allegedly implicates Zuma, hinges on various factors, including:

  • Placing Mentor in Johannesburg in September or October 2010;

  • Unearthing evidence to support her claims that Kaunda had called her one Sunday night to arrange a meeting with Zuma;

  • An expert opinion about key features of the family’s Saxonwold home that she had recalled in great detail as a way of demonstrating that she had been there; and

  • That Mentor had confided in some of her former MP colleagues on the joint standing committee on intelligence in Parliament about the Guptas’ alleged offer to make her the minister of public enterprises in exchange for ensuring that SAA dropped its Mumbai route.

With the exception of that China trip, which had been solidly nailed down, critical gaps remain in the rest of her tale.

This, Mentor urged, could be because of a time lapse from the date of her first public utterances on the Saxonwold meeting around 2016 to the starting date of the commission in August 2018.

Mentor believes that it was possible for some information, such as official Home Affairs and parliamentary records, SAA flight records and, possibly, cellphone records to be problematic, possibly altered.

She also wants the commission to have a forensic investigation to reveal renovations to the Gupta home since her alleged visit in 2010. This is because windows, the door on a guest loo, pillars, a mural and steps leading to the front door of the Gupta home were not quite as they were when she visited the property for inspection by the commission in December.

A Gupta meeting some Monday in October

Mentor was initially emphatic that the Saxonwold meeting took place on a Monday in October 2010. Later, once the commission provided confirmation from four airlines that she could not be placed on a flight that could have coincided with her timing of the meeting, Mentor conceded that it was possible that the trip could have been in September.

This was after being confronted with SAA records that do not support her claim, that British Airways had no record of her ever flying with them, nothing on Mango, while SA Express apparently didn’t fly the route back in 2010.

Upon overnight reflection, Mentor explained that the meeting may have been slightly earlier, possibly in September.

This is because, she said, she recalled allegedly having apologised to Zuma for having refused to meet with him “in China two weeks ago”. The China trip was in late August 2010 so she now suggested the Saxonwold meeting could have happened in September.

A glimmer of hope, though, rests in confirmation of a labour strike around that time as Mentor had testified that Ajay Gupta had allegedly told her Zuma was late for their meeting, twice, because he had been held up by a meeting with Cosatu.

The commission has since established that there was indeed a meeting of Cosatu’s top leadership with ANC counterparts on 13 October 2010 — not quite a Monday, though.

Querying Kaunda’s cellphone bill

Mentor testified that former Zuma aide Kaunda had called her one evening in October 2010 for a meeting with the former president in Johannesburg the following day.

During cross-examination, Kaunda’s legal representative ripped into Mentor’s claim, saying she had provided three different versions about her communication with Kaunda before that Sunday night call.

There were either SMS chats before the call, or Mentor had “called” Kaunda prior to it or there had been no communication between them before it.

Kaunda provided the commission with her itemised bill for the month of October 2010 and there is no call to Mentor.

Mentor stuck to her story and told the commission that Kaunda provided a bill for only one telephone number while she had use of various other cellphones at the time.

Besides, said Mentor, Kaunda had merely provided the commission with a personal bill and not independent records from Vodacom which, she said, had confirmed to her legal team that call records were not retained for more than five years.

The commission heard that Mentor only conceded that the Saxonwold meeting could have taken place earlier, in September that year, once she realised that Kaunda had a copy of her October bill.

So which chairman was it?

Mentor earlier testified that she had first disclosed the Gupta job offer to some colleagues on the joint standing committee on intelligence, on which she had served in 2010.

This was a casual mention “in the foyer” ahead of their meeting and allegedly happened soon after her visit to Saxonwold. At the time she said that some of the MPs had raised it at the start of the meeting, but the then chairman of the committee, Siyabonga Cwele, did not put it on the agenda to be discussed. Instead, Mentor said, he had said he would raise it directly with “Luthuli House”.

On Tuesday, the commission heard that Cwele was by then already a Cabinet minister and no longer chairman of the committee.

Mentor then said she had been wanting to make this “correction” to her initial statement. She recalled a casual chat involving Cwele but reckoned it would have been around 2008 when they had spotted a Gupta news item on a TV screen.

This was when she said that she had told the committee members, again informally, that they needed to address “the issue of the Guptas”.

The report-back about the alleged Saxonwold meeting did not happen in committee. Mentor says she had confided in two MPs, one of them Dennis Bloem.

However, Bloem was no longer a member of the committee in 2010 but had been a fellow ANC MP until 2009 when he joined Cope.

Bloem, who previously testified in the Bosasa leg of the inquiry, is scheduled to return to the witness stand on Thursday to shed light on precisely what Mentor had told him. Indications from a submitted statement are that he recalls having had a discussion with her over the Saxonwold “invite”.

The former politician’s counsel, Anthony Gotz, briefly addressed the commission at the end of Mentor’s testimony.

He reiterated that Mentor had, during her testimony, conceded that the controversial October meeting could have been earlier.

He said this was around August 27, 2018, and that Kaunda’s statement to the commission was signed or submitted on 17 September 2018 — raising a question about why Kaunda did not submit telephone records for September either.

In addition, he stressed that information obtained suggests that Kaunda also had an MTN cellphone number, one that was registered as at May 2010.

Earlier in the day, Gotz objected to the limited manner in which, he said, the commission’s legal team had put a nine-page statement by Bloem to Mentor.

He said there were “considerable amounts” of information in the document that supported the Mentor’s version and accused the commission’s legal team of having concentrated only on “minor” differences.

Mentor raised her hand to address Zondo, for the umpteenth time:

For the better part of me being on the witness stand, I have felt that I had to deal with issues that are not corroborating my version.”

She said she had felt that she was only having to explain and deal with the parts of the evidence that did not support her testimony.

Said Justice Zondo:

As a commission, we don’t take any position regarding a witness’s evidence. What we do is we try and look at the evidence and look at all possible perspectives. We look at what may corroborate someone or what may not.

It may be that at certain times, the focus might be on what is not in line with someone’s evidence… if that happens, it can only be because there is no need to worry about those elements that support testimony.”

The commission resumes on Thursday. DM

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