DM168

Daily Maverick 168

Judge Raymond Zondo: corruption fighter and seeker of justice

Constitutional Court Judge Raymond Zondo on August 17, 2012 in Pretoria, South Africa. Zondo was formerly a Judge President of the Labour Appeal Court. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

Judge Raymond Zondo, who chairs the commission and is the country’s Deputy Chief Justice, is now one of South Africa’s most recognisable members of the judiciary. ‘Zondo' has become a byword for klapping back and the livestreaming of its hearings has made it a kind of national telenovela of the kleptocracy South Africa has become.

First published by Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper

In the social media era, the Zondo Commission of Inquiry repeatedly and regularly trends on Twitter, Google and Facebook. In 2020, even as Covid-19 forced its hearings into the virtual rather than in the real world, the commission commanded national attention from January all the way to December.

Judge Raymond Zondo, who chairs the commission and is the country’s Deputy Chief Justice, is now one of South Africa’s most recognisable members of the judiciary. “Zondo” has become a byword for klapping back and the livestreaming of its hearings has made it a kind of national telenovela of the kleptocracy South Africa has become.

In 2019, when former president Jacob Zuma played manga-manga games with the commission, Zondo earned criticism for letting him. It took 16 months to November 2020 to get Zuma back to the commission this year and when he did a runner with his advocate Muzi Sikhakhane after making an application for Zondo to recuse himself, the gloves came off.

Zondo stopped bending over backwards to accommodate Zuma. He laid criminal charges against Zuma, and his counsel will appear before the Constitutional Court on 29 December to request an order compelling the former head of state to appear before the commission in January and February 2021 to give substantive testimony.

Part of the request to the court is that it be ordered that Zuma’s right to revoke silence as a defence is stripped away from him. It’s going to be the new year’s first clash of the titans, as Zuma’s attorneys advised on 14 December that he will not respond to Zondo’s Constitutional Court papers or participate in the case.

In 2020, Zondo’s mien changed. When hearings started in August 2018, his judicial inscrutability was impenetrable, no matter the testimony he heard. This year the judge abandoned his legendary neutrality for the right to be gobsmacked and downright annoyed at the revelations of the layers and layers of corruption and the enablement of corruption he has heard.

Zondo tried and failed to suppress a laugh on more than one occasion as she testified. When former SAA board chairperson Dudu Myeni appeared in an odd digitally pixelated form via Zoom to declare repeatedly for an entire day that she would not say anything for fear of incriminating herself, you could almost picture the smoke pouring out of Zondo’s ears.

When Eskom’s former company secretary Suzanne Daniels appeared in September 2020 and said she did not know what made her go to meet Gupta family strategist Salim Essa when he called her, he harrumphed, “Really, Ms Daniels!” in some disbelief.

It has been a big year at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry. The first big political names appeared before the commission in 2020. For receiving payments and other gratuities from Bosasa, Zondo heard testimony from former Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane, former ANC MPs Vincent Smith and Cedric Frolick.

Then, the big guns. Testimony on how money had flowed from the Free State government’s housing department to Edwin Sodi’s Blackhead Consulting for the audit of asbestos-roofed houses also led to the first State Capture arrests by the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority. The ANC Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, was charged in November about this case as the power of amendments to the commission’s terms of reference were revealed – the firewall between the commission and the law-enforcement agencies was broken down, allowing inter-operability.

And in November, the judge was again visibly taken aback when forensic investigator and author Paul Holden of Shadow World Investigations revealed how kickbacks of R9-billion and R56-million had been identified.

Holden triangulated evidence from HSBC bank statements and other documents to arrive at the most exact figures of how Transnet funds to buy trains had been laundered and funnelled out of the country.

In the final week of testimony in December, three executives from global consultancy McKinsey gave evidence before Zondo and also agreed to pay back R650-million (with perhaps more to come) to Transnet. This was after the commission’s investigators showed them evidence of how former McKinsey head of South Africa operations, Vikas Sagar, was likely to have known that its contracts were fruits of a poisoned tree. The McKinsey refund and testimony made global headlines for the Zondo Commission of Inquiry and it was a denouement that revealed the judge has a sense of the dramatic.

Other testimonies grabbed public attention for how they revealed State Capture agents to be nincompoops. The chartered accountant Yakhe Kwinana took the judge on long, meandering journeys on her time on the SAA board, which included a long explanation about how to make vetkoek.

Zondo tried and failed to suppress a laugh on more than one occasion as she testified. When former SAA board chairperson Dudu Myeni appeared in an odd digitally pixelated form via Zoom to declare repeatedly for an entire day that she would not say anything for fear of incriminating herself, you could almost picture the smoke pouring out of Zondo’s ears.

The year 2021 is going to be a difficult one for Zondo. In the first two months, he will have to deal with Zuma, who is at the heart of the commission’s terms of reference. In October 2020, a civil society working group tabled a list of 100 key witnesses whose testimony had not yet been heard. Three of these testified before the commission shut up shop for the year, but it still leaves a substantial list to be heard. Zondo is meant to submit his report to President Cyril Ramaphosa by 31 March 2021, but he is unlikely to make the deadline because Covid-19 got in the way and delayed proceedings during the hard lockdown.

Hennie van Vuuren of Open Secrets and the civil society working group says Bain & Company, the auditing companies and the banks still need to give testimony.

“The narrative is being reframed by companies like KPMG and it’s crucial they are hauled to account,” he says. KPMG has made reparations to various civil society organisations and hired big guns such as Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu to clean up its act and also its reputation for its part in the capture of the SA Revenue Service. Van Vuuren says it is also important to hear from the victims of State Capture, such as learners, commuters and farmers robbed of funds siphoned off by corruption networks. “It would establish a connection between the commission and the people.”

Zondo is quick to a smile and impeccably polite to whoever sits before him, but in 2020, the head that wears the crown got heavier.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng retires soon, as his term is nearly up, and politicians are suddenly opining that it is time for a woman chief justice.

Is this a genuine gender consciousness or has Zondo and his commission upset too many rotten apple carts to get the top job? It is one of the questions likely to be answered in 2022. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    While I have previously indicated that a female head of the constitutional court is appropriate or acceptable, it should not be as a result of being ‘politically correct’ or at ‘any cost’. Competency and ability to cope with the demands of the post should be driving criteria.

  • Sergio CPT says:

    Agreed 100%! Lets not have an incompetent, sinister, compromised, arrogant and a bumbling idiot like the current public (menace) protector fill the position just because it has to be a woman.

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