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Zondo Commission evokes many questions

After more than four years since the Zondo Commission began its work, this long and tedious journey has finally come to an end. With the benefit of hindsight, we are now in a better position to cast our eyes backwards and ask a couple of questions.

Was it justifiable to spend almost R1billion to sustain this commission? Did the commission have to take this long to conclude its work? To what extent were the witnesses truthful when presenting their evidence? Will the nation find all the answers it hoped for from this commission? To what extent was the Zondo Commission different from previous commissions? These are some of the critical questions that need to be ventilated in trying to unpack the lessons learnt from the Zondo Commission.

To appreciate its significance (or lack thereof), it is of cardinal importance to juxtapose it with previous commissions. Among them is the Arms Deal Commission, which was led by Judge Willie Seriti and Judge Hendrick Musi.

Despite the hard work that went into this commission and the large sums spent to sustain it, the nation did not get conclusive answers to critical questions regarding this saga. This was bound to happen. Some of the key witnesses, such as Joe Modise who was the minister of Defence, had already passed on. Thabo Mbeki, who had served as deputy president under president Nelson Mandela and was president when the incident happened, was not afforded enough time to present his side of the story.

Instead, people who were not in the national government were placed on the centre stage. Among them was Jacob Zuma, who was MEC for Economic Development in KwaZulu-Natal. Another example is the Moerane Commission into political killings in KwaZulu-Natal, which was led by advocate Marumo Moerane.

Premier Willies Mchunu appointed this commission following the spate of unexplained political killings in the province. Large sums of money were allocated to the commission to enable it to conduct its investigations. The 423-page report gave some pointers as to why politicians were being butchered, but failed to provide conclusive answers.

Part of the reason was that potential critical witnesses did not come forward to give evidence because they feared for their lives. Questions were asked as to whether the money that was spent on the commission was justifiable. Those who asked this question were vindicated as more politicians were killed after Moerane had submitted his report.

This synopsis is necessary in providing the broader context within which the Zondo Commission should be assessed. It will make people desist from making the insinuation that those who are critical of the commission and its findings have a vendetta against Justice Raymond Zondo.

Actually, failure to subject the Zondo Commission to scrutiny would be a dereliction of duty by analysts, the intelligentsia and other critics from different sectors of society. Constructive criticism is always useful. It assists in improving future endeavours.

The Zondo Commission was established under questionable circumstances. Advocate Thuli Madonsela recommended its establishment but insisted that the chairperson should not be appointed by then president Jacob Zuma but by the Chief Justice.

This marked a deviation from Section 84(f) of the Constitution, which states that the president is responsible for “appointing commissions of inquiry”. Madonsela’s argument was that Zuma was implicated in the allegation of the capture of the state by the Gupta family and thus could not appoint the chairperson of the commission. Indeed, Justice Zondo was not appointed by Zuma.

Even Madonsela’s report was not submitted to Zuma as the sitting president but was handed to the Speaker of the National Assembly. While the commission was sitting, many things went wrong. Some witnesses were not truthful – one saying that she had met the Guptas abroad when actually they were in the country at that time.

Other witnesses who had painted Zuma in a bad light suddenly told Justice Zondo that things were not that bad under Zuma’s administration. The commission also made mistakes. For example, when Zuma appeared before it, he received a hostile reception (in contrast to what happened with President Cyril Ramaphosa).

This resulted in him not returning to the commission. Justice Zondo was infuriated. He addressed the media, arguing he found it unacceptable the same Zuma who had appointed the commission was frustrating it. Justice Zondo did not remind the nation the commission was not Zuma’s decision but that of the court which compelled him to appoint it. He also failed to remind the nation he had not been appointed by Zuma.

Importantly, Justice Zondo did not present the context within which Zuma had refused to return to the commission. Instead, Justice Zondo approached his colleagues in the Constitutional Court to lay charges against Zuma.

Even more intriguingly, he recommended a sentence of two years if Zuma were to be found guilty. For people with no legal background, this was a very strange practice.

After trying Zuma in absentia, Judge Sisi Khampepe read a strongly worded judgment which sent him to jail for 15 months. This resulted in unrest and the loss of many lives, jobs and the destruction of national infrastructure. Apart from the many extensions and requests for additional funding, the last part of the report was clouded by controversy. There were many postponements.

Even on the day of the final handover, the event was delayed by close to three hours. Ordinarily, this would not have been an issue. What raised eyebrows was that the handover was preceded by the bombshell dropped by Arthur Fraser about the 2020 Phala Phala incident which involved the president.

There was much speculation about the possible causes of these delays. Such speculation affected the integrity of the final report. In a nutshell, while the Zondo Commission report will assist the nation in getting a sense of what happened, it has evoked many questions.

There are lessons to be learnt from this exercise going forward.

-IOL

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