DAYS OF ZONDO: ANALYSIS
The gap between testimony and reality at the Zondo commission, Mo Shaik edition
The Zondo commission has seen some bad witnesses — and some apparently very good ones. Former intelligence boss Mo Shaik seemed to fall into the latter category this week. But as convincing as his performance was, do the details of his story actually make sense?
One of the difficulties faced by Judge Raymond Zondo and his team is that it is now clear that the dirty business of State Capture often took place without a paper trail or an electronic record.
Where money transfers happened, investigative journalists and the commission’s own investigators have done an outstanding job of joining the dots. But not all the money in play flowed between bank accounts — as Mcebisi Jonas’s experience of being offered cash in a bag suggests — and the “softer” aspects of State Capture, like schmoozing or pressuring officials, almost always took place over the phone or during face-to-face meetings.
As a result, the Zondo commission has to rely heavily on the testimony of the witnesses appearing before it — whose accounts, in turn, often hinge on relating conversations or meetings of which there is little evidentiary trace.
The taxonomy of witnesses who have appeared before the Zondo commission thus far is a complicated one.
Few have been “whistle-blowers” in the traditional sense: those who saw wrongdoing refused to co-operate with it and went public with their evidence at the time.
But some have been officials who saw wrongdoing, refused to co-operate with it, and lost their jobs as a result. An example is the former GCIS head Themba Maseko, who declined to comply with the Guptas’ wishes that he channel millions of government advertising spend to The New Age and was shuffled out of his position shortly after, in January 2011.
There is little reason to doubt Maseko’s evidence, though it is unfortunate that one of the key figures who could either confirm or deny his account — former public service and administration minister Collins Chabane — is no longer alive. Maseko’s testimony has been corroborated by several other Zondo witnesses; it is an uncontested fact that Maseko was suddenly moved from his post at GCIS despite being a top performer; and the denials of his account heard by the commission — primarily from former president Jacob Zuma — have been unconvincing.
Maseko was what one might call a “good witness”, in the sense that he had a strong story, stuck to it over the course of two appearances at the commission some time apart, and gave the appearance of a man of integrity telling a tale that fits the conceptions of what we, the outraged public, associate with the machinations of the Gupta family and State Capture. Maseko also confirms the optimistic view that there were (hopefully many) government officials who saw what the Guptas were up to and wanted no part in it.
Because the central difficulty faced by many of the Zondo witnesses is this: though they may retrospectively profess horror and indignation at State Capture, very few took any concrete steps to try to halt it. How do they account for that now, on the hot seat in full view of the public?
There are a few options. One is to claim ignorance of what was going on, and, optionally, to lament: “If only I’d known”. (See: former DIRCO Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who says she learnt of the Waterkloof landing from a TV news bulletin.)
Another is to kick the can lower and lower down the chain of command, until a junior official lands up taking responsibility. (See: former Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, who has claimed — though to Parliament, not to the Zondo commission — that even though he signed off on the early naturalisation of the Guptas, it was the fault of subordinates who prepared the paperwork. See also: mysterious Waterkloof fall-guy Bruce Koloane.)
Yet another is to deny and deflect (See: Zumas junior and senior), or to simply wear the commission down with “alternative facts” (See: Jimmy Manyi).
And another option is to fall on your sword to a certain degree: to tell the commission “I know I didn’t do enough, and I know that was wrong”.
The latter path is the one followed this week by former intelligence head Mo Shaik.
Shaik, like Maseko, meets many of our layperson criteria for a “good witness”. He is a man of high intelligence and erudition who spoke confidently and lucidly for a day-and-a-half at the Zondo commission. He is one of those who lost his job as a result of his refusal to play nice with the Guptas (in Shaik’s case, his proposal to launch an intelligence investigation into the family), and he was scrupulous in acknowledging his own failings.
He gave just enough dirt on Zuma to be credible, but not so much as to make his former life as a staunch Zuma ally seems utterly hypocritical. He brought up his own lamentable role in the Bulelani Ngcuka “apartheid spy” debacle unprompted. He twice confessed to his own cowardice in not fighting harder either for his job or to push through a Gupta investigation.
By his own account, all Shaik could blame — and he freely admitted it was insufficient — was a culture of silence that had taken root within the government.
Shaik was really, really good.
So good, in fact, that it was easy to overlook certain aspects of his testimony that don’t quite add up.
Here’s one. According to Shaik, there were two incidents that prompted intelligence services to launch an investigation into the Guptas. One was the fact that the CIA was sniffing around the Guptas in 2009 because the Americans feared that the family might be mining uranium in South Africa on behalf of Iran. The other was the publication, in 2011, of a newspaper report alleging that Fikile Mbalula was given advance knowledge of his October 2010 appointment as Sports Minister by the Guptas.
In his testimony, Shaik strongly implied that reading the newspaper article was the first occasion on which the spy bosses had considered the possibility that the Guptas might be influencing Cabinet positions.
There are two things to note here. One is that on both occasions cited by Shaik, the South African intelligence services were allegedly alerted to potential breaches of national security by elements external to local intelligence: in the first case by US intelligence agencies, and in the second by local journalists.
Nobody would find it hard to believe that the CIA has more advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities than South Africa’s own spies. But however cynical you may be about the efficiency of the South African state, the idea that local journalists could have a more advanced grip on backroom political happenings than the State Security Agency — with its apparently much-abused surveillance capabilities — strains credulity.
In his testimony, Shaik had already stressed the seniority, experience and general intelligence savvy brought to their positions by him and his two co-intelligence leaders, Gibson Njenje and Jeff Maqetuka.
Njenje himself told the Zondo commission that the Guptas’ influence on Zuma was an open talking-point in the country’s political circles. Reverend Frank Chikane, during his appearance at the inquiry, said that his view was that if intelligence services had missed the Guptas’ encroachment, “I would say we have no intelligence services”.
Yet despite all this, we are expected to swallow the notion that it was the act of picking up a Sunday newspaper that alerted the country’s top intelligence officials to the possibility that the Guptas were hiring and firing Cabinet ministers.
The second thing to note is that towards the end of his testimony, Shaik offered an apparently off-the-cuff additional anecdote about the Guptas. He told the commission that he could personally corroborate Themba Maseko’s claim to having been phoned by Ajay Gupta and pressured about The New Age advertising, because Shaik said he was physically present with Maseko at the time he received the call.
Yet Maseko remembered the call as taking place in 2010, which fits with the fact that Maseko was moved out of his position in January 2011.
Perhaps this is a minor detail — it is the matter of a few months — but it suggests that, by Shaik’s own account, he was aware of what he called “the kind of abuses or approaches the Guptas were taking with government officials” some time before the publication of the 2011 Mbalula story.
Then there is Shaik’s response to the CIA concerns about the Guptas’ uranium mine: that he went to see Zuma, and was “given assurances” that the Guptas were not operating with Iranian backing.
If so, it should give us a national case of the heebie-jeebies that the head of foreign intelligence was merely willing to take the president’s word for it that the Gupta family were not about to plunge South Africa into its biggest international crisis since apartheid.
And, to be fair to Shaik, maybe that was indeed not the end of it. Perhaps there was further investigation undertaken on the Gupta uranium matter that could not be shared with the Zondo commission because it involved still-classified intelligence issues; Judge Zondo was, if anything, overly cautious on ensuring that Shaik and his colleagues were not sharing any inappropriate information.
But it seems unlikely, given that the central point of Shaik’s testimony was that he and his colleagues had indeed tried to probe the Guptas (later, in 2011), and been shut down.
There is a wider point to be made here. While sifting through the colossal corruption of State Capture, there is a danger that our national compass becomes a little skewed: that the theft perpetuated by the baddies is on such a scale that it allows those responsible for smaller offences or omissions to slip through the cracks — or even come out looking like the goodies.
So when we consider the testimony given by Shaik, one response is to acknowledge his performance of contrition and to respect that he and his colleagues tried to do something to stop the Gupta wagon rolling right over South Africa. But that is, surely, an incomplete reaction.
If we are serious about national renewal, our focus on the stand-out villains of State Capture — like Zuma and the Guptas — should not blind us to the entire machinery of government and its associated officials who simply did not do the right thing when the chips were down.
It should also not stop us asking the hard questions — even when the witness in question is as personable as Shaik.
Shaik now runs a private sector consulting firm, and is clearly concerned with his public image. At one stage during his testimony, he mentioned — possibly jokingly, possibly not — that he had been petitioning Google to remove prominent search results related to the Bulelani Ngcuka debacle. As things stand, his polished Zondo appearance will have done him no harm, and possibly won him some credit. But we should all be careful that the Zondo commission does not become a stage for winning unearned redemption, at a time when so much is still on the line. DM