Lone lawyer takes on the State in quest for justice for North West villagers
A community’s frustration has been mounting as their civil case against the State stutters amid accusations of a lawyer and justice officials colluding to drag it out for their personal financial gain.
A lawyer entrusted by a poor rural community to conduct a R21-million lawsuit against the Minister of Police has been fighting for more than five years to get the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to resolve a complaint of alleged corruption involving some of its officials.
The case dates back to April 2014 when 87 residents of Mmasebudule, a village near Zeerust in North West, marched to a mine with links to the late Lucas Mangope, former president of the defunct Bophuthatswana “homeland”.
They were arrested and charged with public violence. The case was later thrown out of court and their lawyer, Mothusi Mogari, filed a lawsuit against then police minister Nathi Nhleko for violation of the residents’ rights as their protest was not violent and they were unlawfully detained.
The civil case is still pending in the Mahikeng High Court and has been the subject of a criminal investigation by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks).
Fraud and corruption
This came after Mogari opened a case of fraud and corruption in April 2021 against the Office of the State Attorney at the Mmabatho police station.
Mogari accused advocate Cecile Zwiegelaar, who had been leading the case, of colluding with officials from the Office of the State Attorney to frustrate the matter.
He claimed that the parties had agreed that it could be settled and did not need to go to trial.
Mogari alleged, however, that, because of his “anti-corruption stance”, there was a certain “cabal” that wanted him off the case to make way for a lawyer who would agree to drag it out and pay kickbacks to justice officials from legal fees earned.
“The plaintiffs’ legitimate settlable [sic] claim is being delayed intentionally to create anxiety and loss of confidence in me by clients and an opportunity for this other attorney to take over an already finished matter,” said Mogari.
He added that the civil case had been set down for trial from 27 to 31 January 2021 in the Mahikeng High Court. A pre-trial conference had been held at which all the parties expressed readiness to proceed with the trial on the agreed date.
Read on Daily Maverick: Marico Chrome Mine liquidation adds to North West community’s grievances
But on the morning of the trial, his team “was ambushed with additional bundles of 26 witness statements which form a crucial part of the evidence” that “was supposed to have been discovered together with other documents”.
‘Deliberate ploy’ to frustrate the case
Mogari has argued that the state attorney misled the court by claiming the documents were only discovered on the eve of the trial. He said the late submission of the documents was a deliberate ploy to frustrate and prolong the process.
In response to a written enquiry on the matter, Zwiegelaar confirmed she had been working on the case with Mogari. But she said she did not know why it had been delayed. “I do not know. I am no longer part of the legal team on this matter.”
Zwiegelaar said she was unaware of Mogari’s allegations and was never interviewed or asked to submit a statement to the police as part of their investigation.
Brigadier Thandi Mbambo of the Hawks said they had investigated and finalised a case of fraud and corruption, and the docket had been referred to the NPA, which decided not to prosecute the matter.
Mogari has since lodged a grievance with the NPA demanding to know the reasons for this decision, but there has been no progress in addressing it.
In desperation, he has filed a complaint with the NPA and written to its head, Shamila Batohi, pleading that action be taken.
NPA spokesperson advocate Mthunzi Mhaga said the complaint had been submitted to the authority’s head office and was being attended to.
Mogari also wrote to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services, the Special Investigating Unit, the Solicitor-General and the Auditor-General, asking them to probe the conduct of the officials involved.
‘Veil of secrecy’
“I have no choice but [to] draw an adverse inference inter alia that the NPA is avoiding to comment on the damning but true assertions therein made and in particular those allegations in conjunction with the conduct of the NPA personnel in Mmabatho (Mahikeng) office,” he wrote.
The committee’s secretariat did not respond to requests for comment.
“The matter is being continuously kept under a veil of secrecy through failure or refusal to respond to our emails and enquiries, which is against our constitutional rights,” Mogari said.
In April 2021, Mogari wrote to Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola to request his “official intervention” and that he place the implicated officials on precautionary suspension pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
Lamola’s spokesperson, Chrispin Phiri, did not respond to Daily Maverick’s questions asking whether the minister had received the letter or taken any action.
Mogari wants the matter probed and finalised, saying the delays have inconvenienced his “downtrodden clients”.
Long wait for justice
Meanwhile, the frustrated residents continue their long wait for justice. They have sent a memorandum of grievances to the Mahikeng High Court demanding action so their case can proceed and be finalised.
Recalling the events at the time of the protest, Joel Tabane said they were shot with rubber bullets and arrested while marching peacefully to the Marico Chrome Mine. They were protesting against an apparent lack of transparency about beneficiation rights and royalty proceeds, and the lack of development in their village.
Tabane said the 87 arrested residents, who included women and youth, spent seven days in police custody in April 2014. The charges against them were withdrawn in the Lehurutshe Magistrate’s Court owing to a lack of evidence.
Tabane said three of the residents who had been arrested had since died without getting justice. “We want the law to take its course. We were wrongly arrested and we were not found guilty of any crime. We must be compensated. We have waited too long already.” Mukurukuru Media/DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.