CONSERVATIONIST VS DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Claws out for DD ‘The Cat’ Mabuza as his past comes back to haunt him
On Thursday, Fred Daniel’s R1-billion civil action against the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and another 24 government entities resumed in the Pretoria High Court. But with the evidence of corruption and fraud stacking up against Deputy President David Mabuza, this isn’t the only matter that the former Mpumalanga premier has to worry about. The allegations of political murders are resurfacing too.
I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’other…
“What Mabuza did to Fred Daniel was extremely criminal and terribly barbaric,” said Joel Pompie Letwaba, during a lengthy interview with Daily Maverick on 18 January 2022. “When he was the premier of Mpumalanga province, he released his henchmen on an innocent white person, who was creating jobs, developing the Badplaas area and protecting the environment.”
Letwaba, for those who don’t know, had recently earned the singular distinction of a “cease and desist” lawsuit from Deputy President David Dabede Mabuza. On 3 December 2021, in a 60-page application to the Mbombela High Court, Mabuza’s attorneys had demanded that Letwaba — a political activist with the Mashishing Civic Coalition — refrain from making “defamatory” statements about the deputy president on national TV. Among the things that Mabuza’s lawyers wanted Letwaba to keep quiet about was the allegation that their client was “responsible for ordering the killing of people while the premier of Mpumalanga”.
Equally problematic, according to the interdict application, were the allegations that Mabuza had become “the cause of problems in the country and in the African National Congress”, that he was “responsible for the killing of whistleblowers” and that he “knows the identity of masterminds of political assassinations in Mpumalanga”. Also, it appeared, the deputy president wasn’t entirely okay with Letwaba’s assertion that he was now “one of South Africa’s most feared politicians and/or persons”.
Of course, as for the last part, it was clear that another concerned citizen had just joined the heavyweight rank of South Africans who refused to be intimidated by Mabuza’s reputation. Alongside the former Badplaas conservationist Daniel (more on whom below), Letwaba was in every sense matching the deputy president pound for pound.
“I’m not going to cringe,” Letwaba told Daily Maverick.
In early December, soon after Mabuza had lodged the application, Letwaba filed his motion to oppose. The cost of this simple submission to the Mbombela High Court, he informed us, was R30,000, which he had paid for himself. But as he well knew, securing the services of a legal team for the answering affidavit — not to mention for the fight itself — would cost a lot more. Here, Letwaba said, if he wasn’t able to raise the funds from the public, he would be forced to accept the offer of his sons, who had told him that they would donate their 2022 university tuition fees to the cause. Either way, it seemed, Letwaba was nowhere near done.
“DD Mabuza does not have a case against me,” he said, suggesting that the only reason for the lawsuit was the upcoming ANC elective conference, scheduled for December in Durban, where the deputy president possibly had ambitions of competing for the party’s top spot. Letwaba pointed to similar allegations that had recently been made in a series of books — from Sizwe Sama Yende’s Eerie Assignment to Dr David Dube’s Al Capones of Mpumalanga to Rehana Rossouw’s Predator Politics — none of which had drawn any legal action from Mabuza of any sort.
Letwaba also questioned the validity of the Mbombela High Court’s jurisdiction over the matter.
“All of these utterances [on national TV] were made while I was in Gauteng,” he said. He noted, verifiably, that the Newzroom Afrika interview of 3 February 2021 had been conducted and broadcast out of Linden, Johannesburg, while the eNCA interview of 18 October 2021 had been conducted and broadcast out of Hyde Park, Johannesburg. In the public apology that Mabuza had demanded in his application for an interdict — an apology, as per the court papers, that was supposed to include the admission that the statements were “false” — it was only these two interviews that had been named.
“I am simply saying,” Letwaba continued, “let the case be heard by judges outside this province, because here [in Mpumalanga] people are afraid of [Mabuza].”
For his part, when asked by Daily Maverick why his boss had chosen to file the case in the Mbombela High Court, the media liaison of Deputy President Mabuza did not respond. Neither did Mabuza’s office answer our second question, concerning the decision to bring a lawsuit against Letwaba and not, for instance, against Dube, Yende or Rossouw. By our reckoning, then, given our extensive coverage of the Fred Daniel trial, there was a familiar pattern at play.
Back in mid-November 2020, as reported in the third part of our “Dead Matter” series, Daily Maverick was sent a memorandum in which Daniel’s advocate, Jacques Joubert, asserted that Mabuza had abused his position of power to deny his client’s section 34 right to “a fair public hearing”. The memo, which ran to dozens of points over six pages, was a detailed summary of the defendants’ alleged obstructionism in case number 34502/2010 of the North Gauteng High Court — this R1-billion civil suit, we made clear, had been lodged by Daniel against the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and another 24 government entities in the long-distant past of July 2010, and yet was only now getting close to trial.
As it turned out, although the event was finally scheduled for 19 July 2021, the first witness in case number 34502/2010 would only be heard on 17 August. The reason for this, as we reported at the time, was a series of avoidable delays. But more than that, as the minutes of the pre-trial conferences appeared to prove, it was all part of a much larger strategy — employed by former president Jacob Zuma in the Arms Deal corruption saga, we noted, the strategy had recently achieved local fame as the “Stalingrad defence”.
All of which was to suggest that the evidence against Mabuza, when it came to his abuse of the courts and the Constitution, seemed to be stacking up.
And yet for Mabuza, in the context of problems like evidence and how such irritations tended to coalesce, this was the least of his concerns. Because on 20 August 2021, when Kobus Vermeulen — a former detective inspector with the Badplaas branch of the South African Police Service — began to give testimony on a pair of events that had occurred in the winter of 2008, it was as if the dam wall on corruption in Mpumalanga had finally burst.
On 27 July of that year, Vermeulen testified, his day had kicked off with a callout to Daniel’s private nature reserve — two local youths had jumped through a hole in the fence, and although Daniel had every intention of letting them go with a warning, a local ANC councillor by the name of Pro Khosa had arrived and “started shouting”.
From there, Vermeulen recalled, it wasn’t long until a crowd had gathered at the police station, demanding justice for the two youths.
“I saw that the thing was getting out of hand and I wanted to exit the police station,” he stated, “to go home. And at that stage Mr Pro Khosa assaulted me physically, by grabbing me around the neck and throwing me into the charge office area. He told us straight that nobody will leave the police station until he’s done.”
But the reason for the hostage situation, Vermeulen continued, which had traumatised him so severely that he’d eventually left the force, turned out to have nothing to do with the youths — it was, he testified, all about “land claims”.
And how did Mabuza fit into this picture? Less than a week later, Vermeulen stated, in contravention of an order to the police “not to get involved”, he had visited Daniel’s nature reserve once again, where a crowd of “a hundred plus” were “jumping on the fences” and “breaking them down with iron bars”. The violent protest was quelled, Vermeulen concluded, when “Mr David Mabuza arrived on the scene”.
“I remember he was standing on the back of a bakkie and he was addressing people with a microphone,” he testified, referring to the future deputy president of South Africa, who at the time was the MEC for agriculture and land affairs in Mpumalanga. “He basically applauded them and told them not to worry, that the land will be given back to its lawful claimants.”
This, then, appeared to be the sort of testimony that the Stalingrad defence was meant to prevent. For the first time in a South African high court, evidence was led linking Mabuza to the alleged land claims scam. And despite the ongoing efforts of the State’s advocates to derail the trial, it would only get worse for the deputy president — because on 6 September 2021, as reported by Daily Maverick, forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan would take the stand. In testimony that would lay out the workings of the scam in compelling and persuasive detail, O’Sullivan would lead the court through an allegedly fraudulent transaction that pointed directly back to Mabuza.
At the time of this writing, in late January 2022, it appears that things have never looked more bleak for Mabuza. Although his advocate Mike Hellens had met with some success in stalling the 39-day trial, mostly by submitting a range of “special pleas” that ensured only a handful of witnesses would take the stand, Judge Cassim Sardiwalla has refused to budge. On Wednesday, 19 January, Sardiwalla ordered that the trial would resume — as scheduled — the very next day. The State Attorney’s request to move the trial from the virtual environs of Microsoft Teams back to the physical location of the North Gauteng High Court had been denied.
“We mention further our concern for your safety and the safety of the plaintiffs and their witnesses in a physical court,” Daniel’s attorneys had objected to the judge, after pointing out the continued threat of the Omicron variant and the fact that “technical issues” had not — contrary to what the State Attorney had alleged — been the reason for the delays.
Still, was this all just paranoid hyperbole? Was DD “The Cat” Mabuza, the man who had twice served as South Africa’s acting president, now so desperate about Daniel that he would seek a resolution in violence?
The answer, based on history, tended towards the affirmative. In Rossouw’s Predator Politics, as pointed out in the first part of our “Dead Matter” series, it was noted that 2008 and 2009 were for Daniel two of the most traumatic years of his life. It was during this time, according to Daniel, that Mabuza had phoned him personally to persuade him to accept the “false land claims” on his nature reserve, failing which his safety “could not be guaranteed”.
Letwaba, no doubt, would also answer the question in the affirmative.
“When he was the premier of Mpumalanga,” the activist averred in our interview of 18 January, “he never publicly condemned these political assassinations. During his tenure [as premier, from May 2009 to February 2018], corruption and general lawlessness became the order of the day. And over and above that, police officers who were eager to solve these matters were either taken off the case, demoted or expelled.”
Indeed, back in July 2012, when Daniel had applied to former president Zuma to appoint a commission of inquiry into corruption in Mpumalanga, among the items alleged in the submission was that a certain crime intelligence officer had “dropped his investigation” so he could take up a position in Mabuza’s office. And yet, despite the fact that Zuma would refuse to appoint the commission, the unanswered questions remain.
In the late afternoon of 19 January, less than 36 hours after we had interviewed Letwaba, Daily Maverick was informed that an advocate had agreed to take his matter on contingency. Mabuza’s application for an interdict was subsequently struck off the “unopposed” role. The Deputy president now has another high court battle on his hands.
As for his battle with Daniel, which is currently going ahead in the virtual spaces of the North Gauteng High Court, things should begin to heat up in early February, when Charles Ndabeni — the former CEO of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency — takes the stand. Ndabeni, as Daily Maverick reported last year, has already testified in an affidavit that after he had ordered an agency-wide investigation into “irregularities” regarding Daniel, he was presented with evidence of “fraudulent and illegal activities, breaches in legal compliances and the ultra-vires exercise of power by senior [agency] staff”.
Mabuza, as Daily Maverick further reported, appeared to have been indirectly linked to these activities.
So what is going through the deputy president’s mind now? It’s only guesswork, but it’s doubtful he’s a happy man. A senior ANC official has informed our sources that the Daniel matter is “giving DD sleepless nights”. To be so close to the presidency, one would assume, and to have one’s past on such open display… to risk a cliché, it’s a plot straight out of Shakespeare.
But the last word should probably go to Letwaba:
“David Dabede Mabuza is a monster who brutalised the people of Mpumalanga for a full nine years. I stand by what I said on TV.” DM/OBP