Nkandla project manager withdraws his consent for press coverage

2014-11-20 00:00

THE Nkandla project manager who helped set a legal precedent by supporting a Witness bid to cover his disciplinary hearing has decided to try to block press coverage instead.

Having previously said that his disciplinary hearing would make “major revelations about people at the top” for reporters in attendance, Jean Rindel yesterday said that — “with regret” — he had taken new legal advice to withdraw his consent for media access.

Rindel revealed this to The Witness just hours after the chairperson of another Nkandla hearing ruled against a separate application by the paper’s publishing company Media24 to cover those proceedings as well.

Although the ruling for access to Rindel’s crucial hearing still technically stands, civic organisations now fear the media may wind up barred from all Nkandla hearings, and their key revelations on the spending scandal may never be known.

Rindel and 11 of his junior Public Works colleagues have been charged with misconduct by the department over wasteful spending in the R246 million Nkandla upgrade, and have been described by their union as “scapegoats” for politicians.

At a special media hearing yesterday, chairperson Nhlanhla Mfeka made his ruling against press access partly on the grounds that — in a separate turn-around — the other 11 respondents objected to evidence in their hearings being made public.

In a precedent-setting “victory for press freedom” in September, The Witness and its sister paper Beeld won the right for print journalists to cover Rindel’s key hearing — aided by an active request from the manager that reporters cover his case to “ensure a fair process”.

However, the chairperson of his hearing ruled in favour of Media24’s application on the grounds that freedom of expression was a “primary right, not a secondary right”, and that it was “appropriate and just” that reporters cover it, in view of the public interest in the spending of public funds.

In addition, the union representing the staffers said all 11 consented to press coverage of their hearings.

But Mfeka heard yesterday that these 11 had had a “change of heart”.

Rindel told The Witness he had reversed his own position “not out of any secret deal or any settlement, but just based on advice from my new lawyer.

“Look, there are many benefits to your guys reporting on my case, but I have had to listen to advice that there are drawbacks as well,” he said.

“I still reserve my right to speak out at a later stage if necessary.”

One lawyer representing the 11 staffers, Elco Geldenhuys, admitted their turn-around was “tactical”, and partly driven by their fear of additional “stress”.

Meanwhile, the paper understands new state hirings for the 12 disciplinary hearings could see millions added to the more than R200 million in public money already spent as a result of the upgrade at the president’s Nkandla home.

Geldenhuys said he expected that the department would now hire a total of 12 advocates to chair all 12 hearings, on top of 12 separate prosecutors.

Yesterday, lawyers for the employees were overheard expressing fears that costs could “get out of control — if we end up at the high court, this could drag on for a year”.

Willem de Klerk, a lawyer for Media24, called yesterday’s ruling “a setback for press freedom”.

He said: “We will wait for all chairpersons to issue a ruling on our application before taking a decision on whether to apply to the high court to review the decisions”.

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