Zondo witnesses rack up fees ... and you’re paying
Taxpayer will cover the legal costs of Gordhan and Abrahams et al – and there’s no guarantee they'll pay it back if they’re found to be dodgy
Taxpayers aren’t just funding the more than half-a-billion-rand operations of the Zondo state capture inquiry – they’re paying the legal fees of certain witnesses and implicated officials as well, including former president Jacob Zuma.
And, in almost all of these funding cases, there is no guarantee that the office bearers involved will be required to pay back the money if they are found by the inquiry to have acted outside the course and scope of their official duties.
The state attorney’s office has confirmed that the government is funding the legal costs of former public enterprises minister Lynne Brown, former prosecutions head Shaun Abrahams, labour minister Mildred Oliphant, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and former Zuma personal assistant Lakela Kaunda – and is still processing a number of other applications for funding from unnamed “former and current office bearers”.
All of these officials, excluding Gordhan, have been notified that they were implicated by testimony led in the inquiry.
“The legal assistance granted to all the public office bearers was granted on the premise that they acted within the course and scope of their employment in executing state function,” state attorney Isaac Chowe writes in a letter to the DA.
Chowe reveals that the state attorney, “in most of the matters”, has not been instructed to ask that any of the current or former government officials receiving funding for their state capture inquiry legal costs reimburse this money, if they are found to have acted outside the course and scope of their duties.
This means that, currently, there is almost no guarantee that state officials found to have acted outside the scope of their employment – in other words, against the public interest and legal requirements of their positions – will need to repay the state.
There is, however, a notable exception: Zuma.
The presidency has confirmed in a letter to the DA that it has agreed to pay for a senior and junior advocate to represent Zuma at the inquiry, as well pay the costs of an attorney.
It says this funding is being granted on the condition that “Mr Zuma undertakes to refund the state all costs incurred on his behalf if it is found that he acted in his personal interests or for his personal benefit in the commission of the allegations against him and it is found that he forfeited state cover”.
Zuma has chosen not to give any response to the evidence led so far, so his legal costs are understood to be very low. That may change if he decides to testify.
The Pretoria High Court ruled in 2018 that Zuma was not entitled to continued legal funding of his corruption trial defence by the state, and needed to repay the nearly R16m already spent on this.
Zuma is currently seeking to challenge that decision at the Supreme Court of Appeal.
He is also trying to challenge another high court ruling that forces him to pay an estimated R10m in legal costs in his fruitless battle to block the release of, and later overturn, then public protector Thuli Madonsela’s State of Capture report.
DA shadow minister of correctional service James Self said: “It is both bizarre and unacceptable that the South African taxpayers have to foot the legal bills for politicians and officials who are testifying before the Zondo Commission. If they are innocent there is no need for legal representation. If they have something to hide they should hire their own lawyers. This could cause extensive delays in the commission concluding its work and rack up billions.”