No more Stalingrad for Zuma

Andrew Donaldson writes on the first appearance of the ex-President's new counsel, Adv Mike Hellens SC


THE late Oscar Levant, mordant American composer, concert pianist and television personality, once famously quipped, “So little time and so little to do.”  

It’s an observation that is perhaps apposite when considering Jacob Zuma’s brief appearance yesterday in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in connection with fraud, racketeering and money-laundering charges.

Here at the Mahogany Ridge, we did note that was only the third time that Accused Number One has appeared before a judge in the 17 years that this matter has been bothering us — and even then it was just to settle on yet another postponement date.

Still, it gave us a chance to see the defence’s new legal eagle dream team in action, in particular Michael Hellens, Zuma’s senior counsel. 

Impressive guy.

“We are ready,” Hellens told the court, “and there is not going to be funding problems with this team. This team is here to stay.”

The presiding officer, KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Isaac Madondo, appeared unmoved by the admission. But the rest of us may have expressed some relief at this; taxpayers had after all coughed up a small fortune over the years to keep Hellens’s new client from facing criminal proceedings.

He told the court that Zuma was abandoning his application to have the National Prosecuting Authority review the charges against him, and instead was seeking a permanent stay of prosecution — a “realistic option” and one with “a great chance of success”.

There were four reasons for this, Hellens said. Firstly, the delay in bringing charges had compromised his client. Ditto the trial delay. Cue much in the way of cynical laughter here at the Ridge.

Then there were “significant pretrial irregularities” and “constitutional problems”, all sorts of spy tapes stuff that, he added, called to mind the Cold War operations of the 1960s. 

Or perhaps, we thought, the sort of operations that would be associated, some 50 years later, with Arthur Fraser, Zuma’s dodgy ally with the National Intelligence Agency.

Lastly, Hellens said there was the “sad” matter of executive interference in this process at the “highest level”. 

Ah, well, perhaps not sad enough. For then Hellens had a typically snide swipe at the media. This time it was about the much vaunted “Stalingrad tactic”, and it was almost as if he was pre-empting the rush into print reports that delays in the matter had further delayed the matter. Or some such.

“We read of Stalingrad in the press,” he said, “the press that seems to be running the country at the moment. But this is not Stalingrad, this is Pietermaritzburg.”

Such antipathy towards the fourth estate could stem from a Sunday newspaper report last year in which Hellens revealed that the self-confessed tobacco smuggler and fraudster Adriano Mazzotti had given him a cash “gift” of R500 000 in a bag. But we won’t go there at the moment.

As it is, it was left to state advocate Billy Downer to point out that it was in fact Hellens’s predecessor, Kemp J Kemp, who had introduced into the record the notion of a Stalingrad defence — and not the fourth estate.

But Hellens was having none of this. “[Stalingrad] does not exist in this team,” he said. “Let me not say we’ve abandoned Stalingrad and we’re heading directly for Moscow.”

Then came the words that, just maybe, will one day introduce a far graver pronouncement than the one heard yesterday.

“Mr Zuma,” the judge said, “please stand up.”

It was just to tell him that the case had been postponed to November 30, and that he was being released on his own recognisances, and to warn of the consequences should he not be back in court on that day.

Nonetheless, it was an odd moment, Madondo lecturing the man whose office had announced his appointment as KZN’s deputy judge president in June 2016. 

It was an appointment not without controversy. 

Some years earlier, in 2011, Madondo told the Judicial Service Commission that an Indian should not be awarded the position of KZN judge president. As he put it: “… we still have things to address: imbalances, all kinds of things which need more insight, which a person who is not (a black) African cannot be privy to.”

His comments outraged the Indian community. But when he got the deputy judge president position, he told the Witness, “It’s in the past now,” adding that the incident had wrongly portrayed him as a racist and anti-Indian.

Charges, we note, which have been levelled at the new pro-Zuma political party‚ the Mazibuye African Congress, which won’t have Indians or whites as members. But more of that another time.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.