Shots fired – State shuffles witness list in Zandile Gumede fraud case amid safety concerns
Apparent intimidation and threats to witnesses are the latest snags in the pursuit of a fraud and corruption case against former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede.
The trial of former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede and 21 others – who are facing 2,793 charges of racketeering, fraud and corruption relating to a R320-million Durban Solid Waste contract – took another dramatic twist this week when witnesses’ fears caused proceedings to be postponed until Monday.
A special team of investigators are assessing the threat to and safety of the witnesses and the State has agreed to shuffle its witness list to address safety concerns.
Read more in Daily Maverick: State has ‘irrefutable evidence’ to convict Zandile Gumede and 21 alleged co-conspirators in R320m graft trial
The case is one of the biggest fraud, corruption and money-laundering indictments involving a senior politician in South Africa.
In court documents, the state alleges that Gumede headed up a criminal “racket” formed with the sole aim of defrauding the municipality and enriching members. The State says it has “irrefutable evidence to convict” Gumede and her co-accused.
Gumede is accused No 1 in the case. Also facing charges are former ANC eThekwini Municipality exco member and councillor Mondli Mthembu (accused No 2); former city manager Sipho Nzuza (accused No 3); Robert Abbu (accused No 4), who at the time of the alleged crimes was Durban Solid Waste’s deputy head for strategic and new developments; and Sandile Ngcobo (accused No 5), who was deputy head of supply chain management at the municipality. All allegedly benefitted from the scheme. Other accused are wealthy business figures and “tenderpreneurs”.
The stakes are high. On 10 October 2019, footage of the Hawks, Asset Forfeiture Unit and other agencies raiding the homes of the accused went viral on social media. The aim of the raid was to seize assets worth at least R51-million. As a result, a number of luxury vehicles, including Porsches, Lamborghinis and Jaguars were seized. Palatial homes in some of the leafiest suburbs were also seized by the State.
Threatening to withdraw
A key witness’s home was allegedly shot at over the weekend, and the incident has frightened other State witnesses, with some threatening to withdraw from the witness list out of fear for their lives. The State has said it will have to change the line-up of its witnesses while the matter of the witnesses’ safety is being looked at by relevant bodies.
When defence lawyers and prosecutors were called into the chambers of trial judge Sharmaine Balton on Wednesday morning there was a suggestion that fearful witnesses be allowed to testify in camera, with the media not allowed to cover proceedings.
It was not the first time witness safety had been raised. Earlier this month, the first State witness in the matter, Mbuso Ngcobo, who was head of the City Integrity and Investigation Unit (CIIU), resigned because of threats on his life.
Before his resignation, Ngcobo testified that a tipoff about the tender scandal came from an anonymous whistle-blower who dropped off an envelope with a “statement of allegations” and a bundle of documents at the CIIU’s offices on 7 March 2018.
Ngcobo is yet to finish giving evidence. His testimony was stopped because of safety concerns.
The trial has hit one snag after another since it began in August last year when the State began reading out the 400-page indictment – containing allegations relating to the awarding and renewal of a contract for refuse collection, street cleaning and tackling illegal dumping in townships in 2017.
Gumede was forced to step aside after being elected chairperson of the eThekwini ANC region because of the charges. She still serves as an ANC member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature.
Gumede has the support of the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC and maintains her arrest and indictment is the work of unnamed political opponents whom she accuses of using state machinery to block and destroy her political career.
Mpumelelo Zikalala, a legal expert in Durban, said the nature of the case made it vulnerable to many more delays. He added it was still too early to say which way the case was going because there was a lot of testimony and cross-examination to come.
“So far we have had only one witness and he has not even concluded his evidence. In this case there are 21 accused and many more witnesses. If one of the accused or the witness is unable to come to court, this will trigger a delay…”
Zikalala said neither the State nor the defence benefits from delays. If the defence lawyer had set aside, say, two weeks for a trial and there was a delay, the client was liable to pay at least a portion of the legal fees. On the side of the State, everyone from the judge to the prosecutor and witness was affected, as they had to set aside time to be in court.
Reg Horne, of Durban private investigation company Justicia Investigations, said threats to witnesses should be taken very seriously because there had been cases where witnesses had been threatened and subsequently attacked and even killed.
Threats should be taken seriously
“Each case should be taken on its own merit. I don’t have the full information on this case, but if the witnesses report threats, those threats should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated and assessed.
“If the threat is real, the witness must be put under a high level of protection. Otherwise the whole case falls away because your witness has been targeted and killed,” Horne said. He didn’t know whether the police and the courts could provide the protection required by witnesses in the Gumede case, given the prevalence of political murders in KZN.
The South African Local Government Association says 17 KwaZulu-Natal town and city councillors have been assassinated since September 2022. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.