Shortly before three o’clock on Tuesday, on day two of former president Jacob Zuma’s testimony at the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo intervened.
Zuma – and his legal team – had by then started to effectively frustrate the process of exacting substantive and meaningful replies from the former head of state. Ever since he concluded his grand political statement of victimhood on Monday (it lasted almost three hours) his replies to vexing questions had been a variation on the theme of “I don’t know… I don’t recall… I don’t remember”.
His lawyers – Daniel Mantsha and Thabani Masuku – had also begun ramping up their protestations.
Evidence leader Paul Pretorius, a man with vast reservoirs of patience and a bedside manner which would have appealed to the perennially under siege Zuma, was starting to become slightly irritated. He tried to prise something from the recalcitrant former ANC leader about the redeployment and eventual resignation of Themba Maseko as head of government communications (GCIS).
Maseko told the commission that he resisted advances by Ajay Gupta to force him to divert “all of government’s ad spend of R600 million” to the family’s The New Age newspaper – an enterprise which Zuma confirmed was his brainchild. He also told the commission how he was later told by Collins Chabane, then minister in the Presidency, how Zuma instructed him to either shift Maseko elsewhere in government or to dismiss him.
Gupta, Maseko said, threatened he would speak to Maseko’s “seniors” who would sort him out because he was uncooperative.
Pretorius wanted to probe the issue in a non-threatening manner, lest he drew the ire of Zuma’s hawkish legal squad. But Zuma, cunningly deploying his trademark throat-clearing (a tick which always becomes more pronounced the more difficult the question, in Parliament or elsewhere), played with a straight bat.
Nothing to report, counsellor!
“Mr Zuma,” Zondo began. “When everyhting is done, I have to make certain findings on evidence I have heard, and it is important that I get perspective and clarification. Mr Maseko said he said he was CEO of GCIS, he had performed his duties very well, no-one in terms of his seniors had complained about him or his work.
“He says Minister Chabane actually said he was a very good civil servant, he never asked to be removed as CEO of GCIS (government communications) or asked to be transferred… the only reason, as far as he knows, was what he was told by Chabane that you called and said that ‘Maseko needed to be redeployed or his services terminated’.
“The minister said by the time you were back in South Africa (from a state visit to China) ‘Maseko should no longer be there’.
“He believes he was removed at GCIS because he did not cooperate with the Guptas. I want to give you a full picture, to give you an opportunity to respond or to add to your earlier comments?”
By that time, after more than four hours at the witness table, one protracted legal dispute between the two legal teams and repeated efforts by Pretorius (and Zondo) to cajole, persuade and coax Zuma, he knew exactly what the commission wanted.
And he replied, with a straight face, leaning towards the microphone: “No, nothing to add… absolutely nothing.”
He then quickly explained that it was ministers who dealt with directors general (as Maseko was), not the president.
But, Zondo insisted, can you remember the circumstances?
“That’s what happens, if they have whatever view of their accounting officers, they (the ministers) make the case and consult with the president, it never started with the president.”
But according to Maseko “you told him by the time you return to South Africa Maseko had to be gone, and even Richard Baloyi, then minister of public service and administration wasn’t aware of what was happening,” Zondo continued.
“No, nothing, doesn’t work like that really, can’t think you have minister of public service and administration not knowing. Ministers discuss among themselves, when they have agreement, this is what they have been doing,” Zuma said.
Zondo, in his non-threatening in mild-mannered way, changed tack, and asked Zuma about Baloyi being irritated with Maseko suddenly moving to his department, and that Maseko eventually just resigned.
Zuma: “No, I have nothing to add, really… nothing to add…”
When Zuma was delivering his oratory on Monday, uninterrupted and in command of a story about rogues and spies, conspiracies and plots, enemies and allies, he was in complete control.
But when he was delivered into the hands of Pretorius even the most innocuous question was being second-guessed by Mantsha and co, with Zuma feigning knowledge and insight.
Zuma’s opening statement might have been dramatic and colourful, but just as his sparring with Pretorius and Zondo on Tuesday, was devoid of any detail or content. The former spymaster-turned-president had to be protected by his lawyers over testimony by Maseko and former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor.
Imagine what will happen if Pretorius rakes over the coals that are the affidavits by Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene – Mantsha and Masuku might just explode.
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