South Africa

DAYS OF ZONDO

Meet Nick Linnell, one of the Zuma era’s Chancers-in-Chief

The mysterious Nick Linnell is appearing before the Zondo Commission — a virtually unknown individual who was nevertheless trusted enough to meet with former president Jacob Zuma and serve as consigliere to Dudu Myeni. But who is Linnell really?

“My Lords, then there is the shadowy figure of Mr Nick Linnell, a ‘Mr Fix It’ who in the late 1970s operated in the illegal racist white minority regime of Ian Smith in then Rhodesia…”

Those were the words of Labour peer Peter Hain, addressing the British Parliament in 2017.

That may have been the first and only occasion on which Nicholas Linnell was brought to the attention of the House of Lords, but in South Africa, his name had hit the headlines two years earlier.

It was Linnell who was announced by former Eskom chair Zola Tsotsi in 2015 as the man who would chair an independent inquiry into the power parastatal — despite the fact that Linnell was virtually unknown and appeared to have no evident expertise that would equip him for such a daunting and highly technical job.

It would also be Linnell’s task to implement the unexpected suspensions of four key Eskom executives at the time. Here Linnell was on firmer ground. Indeed, he was the perfect person for such a mission — because, as a Business Day editorial noted, he had done exactly the same thing at South African Airways at the behest of the same grande dame of State Capture, Dudu Myeni.

By 2015, Nick Linnell had carved out a lucrative niche role for himself. He would be called in by Myeni to whichever state institution she was helming at the time, in order to “coordinate an inquiry” into some manner of misdemeanour by executives. His role would expand to that of adviser, spokesperson, and quasilegal counsel.

But in reality, it seems, there was a simpler way of describing Linnell: as Dudu Myeni’s trusted hatchet man.

From Rhodesia to the stars

Nicholas Hugh Linnell was born in what was then Rhodesia in 1951. He attended the elite Prince Edward School in Harare and earned degrees in law and commerce at the University of Zimbabwe and the University of Cape Town.

Linnell practised as an attorney in Zimbabwe. What appears to be his LinkedIn profile also records that he served as a magistrate at the tail end of Ian Smith’s government. Thereafter came a stint in “corporate South Africa”, he told the Zondo Commission on Monday, before a recommendation from a colleague would intertwine his and Dudu Myeni’s fates.

It is only in 2011 that any record of Linnell in the South African news media can be found online. In that year he is mentioned as a “spokesperson and adviser” to Myeni while she was the CEO of the Umhlathuze Water Board in KwaZulu-Natal.

Asked by Judge Raymond Zondo how he came to take up this post, Linnell replied somewhat opaquely that he “took over an assignment from a colleague”.

He clearly did not take long to win Myeni’s favour. From Umhlathuze, she would take him with her to the heights of SAA. Not officially, it should be said: City Press reported in 2015 that nobody at SAA seemed certain what Linnell’s role actually was. But it earned him on average R167,000 a month, at a time when the airline’s fragile financial position was leading it to prepare to lay off 10% of its staff.

Although Linnell’s exact job description may have been unclear, it appears that he was kept busy. City Press reported that he was writing press statements and responding to media enquiries, despite the fact that SAA already had a dedicated and highly paid spokesman at the time. Linnell was also reported to be “reviewing forensic reports, legal opinions and affidavits, building case files and liaising with law firm ENSAfrica” — despite the fact that he had no standing as either a lawyer or an auditor, and SAA already had the legal services of ENSAfrica on retainer.

Lawyer or not?

The question of whether one is or is not a lawyer has not traditionally been regarded as an ontological head-scratcher. But for Linnell, matters have been rather more complicated.

Throughout the Zuma years, Linnell was repeatedly described as a “lawyer”. When Eskom chair Tsotsi announced the Eskom inquiry in 2015, it was widely reported that “lawyer Nick Linnell” had been selected to coordinate the investigation.

Linnell told the Zondo Commission this week that he was aware he was often termed a “legal adviser”. He admitted, however, that he was not in fact a lawyer — at least, not in South Africa.

“That title is often referred to me,” Linnell stammered on Monday.

“I’m uncomfortable with that. I was formerly an attorney in a neighbouring country [Zimbabwe]… I have not held myself out to be an attorney.”  

Under questioning, he acknowledged that he was introduced to the Eskom board as a lawyer.

“I think the narrative was that I was a lawyer by profession, or professional training, but that was followed by the statement that I was a consultant,” Linnell explained, sort of. He did not elaborate on whether his retrospective discomfort led him to correct the clear perception at the time that he was a lawyer.

Interfacing with Dudu

When Linnell appeared before the Zondo Commission on Monday, it was the first time most South Africans had had a chance to lay eyes on the man so trusted by both Myeni and former president Jacob Zuma that he could be summoned at a moment’s notice to meetings at the Zuma residence.

The 69-year-old, appearing via video link, turned out to be a white-haired chap with thin-framed glasses and a high voice. If his appearance matched anything on his CV, it is his chairmanship of the Mdala Trust, which supports “Rhodesian and Zimbabwean pensioners resident in the Western Cape”.

He spoke in careful corporate-ese, describing his relationship with Myeni as one which blossomed when they “interfaced on a regular basis” at SAA.

Daily Maverick associate editor Ferial Haffajee first became aware of Linnell’s interfacing at the height of State Capture, when Myeni was running Mob-style collections from SAA’s major contractors. Haffajee recalls:

“It struck me as I reported it then that Linnell provided the financial structuring muscle to make this all happen — a kind of handmaiden to the main actors in State Capture. This work was the writing of agreements, contracts and all the paraphernalia that gave a veneer of legality to exercises we are now finding out were completely illegal. He was Dudu’s Ashu Chawla, the Gupta lieutenant who played a similar role as we now see at the Zondo Commission and as you saw in the Gupta Leaks.  He was billed at the time as a leading management consultant, though I could not readily find such a pedigree and he was not reachable by ‘normal’ means of contact.” 

Asked by evidence leader Pule Seleka what he made of being referred to as Myeni’s “Mr Fix It”, Linnell betrayed no evident annoyance as he responded:

“I think it’s an unreasonable association or narrative to put to it. I was engaged in a number of instances in which things were fixed, in the proper sense… but the narrative itself is probably unreasonable.”

Linnell’s testimony at the Zondo Commission was cut short on Monday by technical issues, but continues on Tuesday. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Clifton Coetzee says:

    When you sell your soul to the corrupted, you are the corrupted.

  • Gavin Ferreiro says:

    I would believe that this person has had other training and/or mentorship. The smoothness of the response and the term used “I think it’s an unreasonable association or narrative to put to it. I was engaged in a number of instances in which things were fixed, in the proper sense… but the narrative itself is probably unreasonable.” indicates that. Disinformation, or the countering of information in such a manner as to be worthless. I wonder, as an ex Rhodi, whether he served in the British Government’s arm in Rhodesia in a clandestine manner and whether he was a proxy for the true spinners namely Bell Pottinger? Would love to see if his body language agrees with his verbosity.

  • Ron Ron says:

    The man is a survivor. He is obviously good at reading which way the wind blows and setting his course appropriately. I think it is also perfectly proper to call oneself a lawyer if one has a law degree from anywhere – it is a generic title which makes no claim to admission as a practitioner in any jurisdiction, as long as it is not used to imply that one is such a practitioner.

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