The operational timeframe of the Zondo commission has been extended by a period of 13 months, from 1 March 2020 to 31 March 2021.
This is the upshot of a judgment handed down by Judge Wendy Hughes in the North Gauteng High Court on Monday, following an application for an extension brought by commission chair Judge Raymond Zondo.
In his application, lodged in December 2019, Judge Zondo had requested only 10 months’ extension to wrap up the hearings of the commission – but predicted that a further extension of three months might be necessary to complete the commission’s final report.
In order to preclude the possibility of further applications for extensions, Judge Hughes ruled that March 2021 should be the commission’s final deadline.
“I am mindful of the fact that it is in the interest of justice that there be finality with the work of the commission, encompassing findings and recommendations to act upon as a matter of urgency,” Judge Hughes wrote.
“In my view, further extensions would not be warranted.”
In granting a 13-month extension, the court took up the suggestion put before it by the Council for the Advancement of the Constitution (Casac), which had advocated for a final deadline of 13 months.
“We welcome the judgment – it is in accordance with the proposal Casac put before the court,” Casac director Lawson Naidoo told Daily Maverick on Monday.
“We think the commission now needs to focus its mind on how it is going to use that 13 months.”
Judge Zondo made it clear in his extension application that even for the commission to finish its hearings within a year would require an amendment to the inquiry’s terms of reference. Judge Zondo suggested that if the commission were to investigate all instances of fraud and corruption affecting state-owned entities and government departments, it would need as much as four years of extra time.
Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, meanwhile, submitted a response to Judge Zondo’s application in which she laid out her belief that the commission had interpreted its terms of reference far too widely.
It was Mkhwebane’s assertion that the commission should have restricted itself to investigating only the three complaints originally taken up by former public protector Thuli Madonsela in her 2016 State of Capture report, namely: whether Jacob Zuma allowed the Guptas to intervene in the appointment of Cabinet ministers; whether the Guptas were given assistance in securing unlawful contracts and tenders; and whether the Cabinet attempted to intervene to prevent the unbanking of the Gupta family.
In her Monday ruling, Judge Hughes wrote that she did “not find it necessary” to deal with this aspect of the public protector’s submission – because it “seeks to repeat the work of the commission, which is already well on its way… and seeks to redefine the scope and timeline already set for the commission”.
The judge did not advance any other opinion on whether or how the commission should curtail the scope of its inquiry in order to meet the new deadline.
Judge Hughes noted, however, that Judge Zondo “has already advanced various ways to curtail and limit the scope and terms of reference of the commission”.
In his application, Judge Zondo suggested that the best way to ensure a relatively speedy conclusion to the inquiry would be for the commission to complete its current avenues of investigation with a focus on State Capture, and for the remainder of outstanding issues relating to fraud and corruption to be referred to law enforcement agencies such as the Hawks for further investigation.
This would require President Cyril Ramaphosa to agree to amending the inquiry’s terms of reference.
Naidoo told Daily Maverick that Casac did not seek to prescribe how the commission should use its remaining 13 months to fulfil its mandate.
“That question is for the deputy chief justice [Zondo] to discuss with the president,” Naidoo said.
The judgment handed down on Monday means that by 31 March 2021 the commission must have completed its work and presented a full report with findings and recommendations to the president.
Such finality, wrote Judge Hughes, is dictated by the interest of justice:
“The commission owes this to the nation as the work of the commission is of national interest.” DM