Former president Jacob Zuma might have come out swinging for the State Capture Commission and its chair, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, in recent weeks but his lawyer, advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, appears to have taken a different approach.
Sikhakhane was all sugar and honey when he came before the commission on Monday – despite being there to argue for Zondo’s recusal.
After a series of no-shows, Zuma – who has been heavily implicated in state capture – was last month eventually subpoenaed to appear before the commission and give evidence.
However, whether he was actually going to pitch up – and if he did, if it would be in person or via video link – was not clear up until Monday morning.
In the end, Zuma opted to appear in person and arrived at the commission with an entourage in tow, elbow bumping the likes of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association’s Carl Niehaus, who had come out to support the former president.
But Zuma has now launched an application for Zondo to recuse himself and Monday’s proceedings kicked off with that application being heard.
His lawyers first hinted at the prospect of a looming recusal application back in September, in a scathing letter to Zondo in which they said the “special focus [on] and targeting” of Zuma had become “the hallmark” of the commission’s approach thus far.
They said at the time, Zuma had reached the conclusion “that the chairperson is no longer capable of exercising an independent and impartial mind”.
And earlier this month – after Zondo released a statement confirming he had been in a relationship with one of Zuma’s sisters-in-law in the 1990s and that they shared a child – the Jacob Zuma Foundation also issued a statement laying into Zondo and describing his disclosure as the outcome of “the advice of the hidden backroom masters and their advisors, trying in vain to do a pre-emptive strike for their man”.
But Sikhakhane on Monday went to great pains to emphasise that the application for Zondo to recuse himself was not based on the notion that he had prejudged Zuma. Rather, Sikhakhane said, some of the deputy chief justice’s comments during proceedings had made Zuma feel as though he was being unfairly persecuted.
“I honestly suggest that there have been times where I believe you have crossed the line when it comes to expressing your outrage as a presiding official,” Sikhakhane said.
“We understand judges must listen to frustrating things. The outrage may even be justified. But, like a judge who has to listen to cases involving the rape of a two year old, what are you meant to do?”
He said many of the witnesses who had so far given evidence, had “parroted” one version of events – giving the impression this was in fact the accepted version. But Zondo did not seem to be with him on this.
“Is it open to a witness or person such as Mr Zuma to complain about what emerges from those witnesses in circumstances where he had the opportunity to apply for leave to cross examine them?” Zondo asked Sikhakhane.
Sikhakhane responded that had he applied to cross-examine Mcebisi Jonas – who was on the stand for two days – for example, saying he would have gotten an unsatisfactory hour or so to do so.
He asked for Zondo to recuse himself, saying he was “mindful of the crisis it would create” but that it was necessary in order for Zuma to give evidence.
He suggested if the former president was forced to take the stand, that he might choose to remain silent but also refuted media reports that Zuma had ever had any intention of refusing to appear.
The hearing continues.