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Zondo inquiry is fully within its rights to question Zuma

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Pierre de Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he is head of the Department of Public Law. He writes a blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The rules and regulations of the Commission make it clear that the Commission has a right to examine a witness to try and establish whether the witness is being truthful.

Former President Jacob Zuma and his lawyers have taken issue with the manner in which he is being treated by the State Capture Commission. They argue it was unfair that he was not provided with the questions he would have to answer, and complain that he was being treated differently than the witnesses who implicated him. There has also been a suggestion that he has not been given adequate opportunity to challenge the testimony of other witnesses.

To assess the accuracy of these claims, it is necessary to look into what the rules and regulations of the Commission say about the treatment of implicated individuals.

As the Commission’s lawyers have stated, a commission of inquiry is not a court of law. It does not have the power to prosecute or convict any person – that power belongs to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). The procedural rules that apply in criminal cases are also not applicable and witnesses or implicated people do not enjoy the same procedural rights as does an accused person in a criminal trial.

Instead, the Commission follows an inquisitorial process. An inquisitorial process is a legal process where the “adjudicator” (in this case Commission) is actively involved in proof-taking by investigating the facts of the case. It is opposed to an adversarial system where the role of the “adjudicator” is primarily that of an impartial referee between the prosecution and the defence.

The task of the Commission is therefore to gather as much relevant information about State Capture (and the involvement of individuals in State Capture) as possible and to get as close to the truth as it can. The rules of the Commission grant wide powers to the Commission to help it achieve this task, unfettered by the normal procedural rules on the admission of evidence that applies to civil or criminal court proceedings. Thus, rule 6.1 states that:

The Commission may receive any evidence that is relevant to its mandate, including evidence that might otherwise be inadmissible in a court of law. The rules of evidence applicable in a court of law need not be strictly applied to the determination of the admissibility of evidence before the Commission.”

The Commission is not a passive institution that sits back and waits for witnesses to come to it. It is empowered to actively gather evidence from any source. The chairperson therefore has the power (in terms of regulation 10.6) to order:

any person to submit an affidavit or affirmed declaration or to appear before the Commission to give evidence or to produce any document in his or her possession or under his or her control which has a bearing on the matter being investigated, and may examine such person.”

It is clear from this section that the Commission has a right to examine a witness to try and establish whether the witness is being truthful. While this regulation makes clear that both non-implicated and implicated witnesses can be examined, rule 3.2 is more ambiguous and it is not clear whether it applies to implicated witnesses as well as non-implicated witnesses. This section states that:

A member of the Commission’s Legal Team may put questions to a witness whose evidence is presented to the Commission by the Commission’s Legal Team including questions aimed at assisting the Commission in assessing the truthfulness of the evidenceof a witness. Subject to the directions of the Chairperson, the Commission’s Legal Team may ask leading questions.”

Asking such questions would therefore be perfectly fair.

If the evidence leaders failed adequately to probe a witness to help the Commission to assess the truthfulness of the statements made by that witness, they would be acting unfairly. This is because a failure to probe a witness might rob the witness of the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings or to refute evidence made by other witnesses. It may conversely be unfair to other witnesses who may have been pushed more vigorously about statements that seemed implausible and may have forced them to reveal something they wished to hide.

In any event, regulation 8(3) allows any witness appearing before the Commission to be cross-examined, but “only if the Chairperson permits such cross-examination should he deem it necessary and in the best interest of the function of the Commission”.

Whether one calls this “cross-examination” (as Zuma’s lawyers do), or (as the rules and regulations do) “examination” with the aim of assessing the truthfulness of the evidence, is not the point. The point is that the rules and regulations permit evidence leaders to probe the witness. Of course, they are more likely to do so where doubt arise about the truthfulness of the evidence being given by the witness.

On the other hand, Zuma’s lawyers are correct to point out that Zuma is being treated differently from non-implicated witnesses. As part of its inquisitorial process, the evidence leaders met many of those witnesses to gather evidence which would then be led at the Commission. Zuma’s lawyers are in effect arguing that he should have been treated like any other witness who came forward to provide evidence of State Capture to the Commission.

Unfortunately, the rules and regulations are silent about whether implicated witnesses should be treated in an identical manner to non-implicated witnesses. What happens if evidence leaders conclude that the implicated witness is not likely to assist the Commission by providing it with credible evidence? Should they still treat the implicated witness as if he or she will provide such evidence? Reasonable people may disagree on this, but what is clear is that nothing in the rules or regulations requires implicated witnesses to be treated identically to non-implicated witnesses.

This does not mean that the rules do not contain special provisions to protect implicated witnesses. Rule 3.3 requires the Commission to notify an implicated person within a reasonable time before the witness gives evidence if testimony will implicate him or her and how it may implicate him or her. The implicated person is also entitled to receive the witness statement that implicated him or her. As far as I am aware (I have not watched the testimony in full) Zuma’s lawyers have not raised this issue during his testimony this week, but if notice were not given that would, of course, amount to unfair treatment.

Once somebody is told that he or she is implicated (as Zuma was told) the rules allow the implicated person to apply to give evidence him or herself; to call any witness to give evidence on his or her behalf; or to cross-examine the witness who implicated him or her.

Such an application must be accompanied by a statement from the implicated person responding to the witness’s statement in so far as it implicates him or her. The statement must make it clear what parts of the witness’s statement are disputed or denied and the grounds upon which those parts are disputed or denied. It was this requirement that tripped up the former SARS commissioner Tom Moyane and his lawyer, as they forgot to indicate which aspects of the evidence were being disputed

There is no right for an implicated person or his or her lawyers to cross-examine the witnesses who implicated him or her and the chairperson has the discretion to allow or not to allow cross-examination. Neither is there a right for an implicated person or any other witness to be provided with all the questions he or she would be asked beforehand. As noted above, this would in any case be incompatible with regulation 10.6 that allows evidence leaders to examine a witness to try and establish whether they are being truthful or not.

Zuma and his lawyers have not made use of these provisions, have not applied to testify or to cross-examine any witnesses. This is not surprising as Zuma can hardly be expected to challenge the evidence of witnesses who implicated him, if his memory has deteriorated to the extent that he is unable to remember much of what happened during his term as president.

While Zuma did not utilise them, it is clear that the rules provide for the president to give his side of the story to try and refute every single claim made by other witnesses who implicated him. A claim that Zuma has not been given an adequate opportunity to respond to allegations against him (and even to confront every single person who implicated him through cross-examination by his lawyers) would therefore not be accurate.

Like any other witness, Zuma does not have the right to refuse answering a question as regulation 8(1) states that no “person appearing before the Commission may refuse to answer any question on any grounds” other than on the ground that the information being sought was legally privileged. However, regulation 8(2) (as amended) provides some protection for a witness who incriminates him or herself while testifying. It reads:

A self-incriminating answer or a statement given by a witness before the Commission shall not be admissible as evidence against that person in criminal proceedings brought against that person instituted in a court except in criminal proceedings where the person concerned is charged with [perjury].”

When one compares the rules and regulations of the Commission set out above with the rules of criminal procedure, the difference between a criminal trial using an accusatorial process and an inquisitorial commission of inquiry comes sharply onto view. It is important that those engaging in arguments about whether orm not Zuma is being treated fairly bear this in mind. DM

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