Michael Hulley: From taxi lawyer to JZ’s man

2015-02-09 08:30

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On Tuesday, Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts approved R6.3?million in unauthorised expenditure the presidency had racked up in legal bills over the past three years.

The committee approved the spending despite the presidency’s failure to provide a detailed breakdown on the legal bill – which far exceeded its R1?million legal budget.

A sizeable chunk of that went to President Jacob Zuma’s personal lawyer, Michael Hulley, who scooped a R1.6?million-a-year retainer for being the first citizen’s private lawyer during this time.

According to Hulley’s contracts with the presidency, handed to City Press as the result of an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, the former taxi-industry lawyer earns a cool R813.28 an hour for “tasks as assigned by the president”.

Hulley’s first stint as Zuma’s legal adviser from November 2011 saw him retained at the rate of R693.77 an hour, or R1.43?million a year for a 40-hour week.

His current contract, signed on June 24 last year, expires with Zuma’s term of office, with a proviso that either party can terminate the contract. Hulley claims expenses at director level.

The presidency declined to provide further detail on Hulley’s tasks or the payments he has received.

During the 2011/12 financial year, the presidency spent R6?295?000 on legal consultants, with the amount dropping to R4?337?000 the following year. In 2013/14, the figure rose to R5?895?000.

The public side of Hulley’s legal work since President Zuma took office has focused on keeping the so-called spy tapes under wraps, which allegedly showed evidence of state collusion.

Hulley is known to be one of Zuma’s closest confidants and has become a key part of the overall Zuma machine and part of his extended “family”.

How it all began

Paradoxically, it was not politics, but KwaZulu-Natal’s taxi industry, that brought the two men together.

A bloody taxi-industry hit on the steps of Durban’s high court – which left an elderly woman and a policeman dead – set the then low-profile attorney on his path to becoming the lawyer and confidant of the country’s most powerful man.

Hulley took the first step on his meteoric journey when he managed the bail application of Zuma’s cousin, taxi boss Mandla Gcaba.

Gcaba had been arrested for allegedly ordering a hit on rival taxi operators who had murdered his father, Simon, and brother Moses.

And, during the court’s lunchtime recess on June 21 1998, five men armed with AK-47 rifles attacked some of the men accused of plotting to murder them. The triggerman, Eric Khumalo, was also killed in the hit.

The attackers were spotted by police dog unit sergeants Craig van Zyl and Solly Shozi as they crossed the city’s busy Victoria Embankment.

During an intense gunfight on the court steps, Van Zyl and an 80-year-old woman, who was out shopping, were shot dead. Police arrested two of the attackers, one of whom was wounded, and two others escaped – allegedly in a car driven by then metro policeman S’bu Mpisane.

Mpisane, now a major housing tenderpreneur doing business with local and provincial government, turned state witness after being arrested. But he didn’t give evidence, because he was allegedly kidnapped and held on an island off the east coast of Africa for a year.

Mandla Gcaba and his brother, Royal Roma, were arrested for allegedly planning the hit on the killers, who were suspected to have been working for the rival Sithole taxi family.

The Sitholes and the Ntuli family had been at war with the Gcabas over the lucrative long-distance taxi transport industry.

Hulley, who had by then recently completed his articles with Wentworth attorney Glen Manning, had just set up his own practice at 320 West Street in inner city Durban and was called to handle the Gcabas’ bid for bail.

Manning had previously represented the Gcabas and their then traditional healer, Alton Joja, from Bizana in the Eastern Cape. But the Gcabas had moved their business to Hulley, as did Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma, who is also a taxi operator.

Joja rose to fame as sangoma to the Marikana strikers and was shot dead by police last March.

The Gcaba brothers were granted bail. Hulley and Gideon Scheltema, SC, ran their defence in a drama-filled murder trial. Judge Allan Howard postponed the case for four months while detectives unsuccessfully tried to find Mpisane.

The Gcabas were acquitted along with co-accused Jabulani Dumakude. The two men arrested in the gun battle at court, Maxwell Ngubane and Phineas Meyiwa, were convicted of murder.

Mpisane, who was never charged, has repeatedly refused to discuss the matter with City Press.

Taxi to riches

Hulley’s professional relationship with the Gcabas solidified and he became their go-to guy, a streetwise operator with access to top-flight counsel, including Scheltema and Kemp J Kemp, the architect of Zuma’s famed “Stalingrad” defence in his corruption trial.

“The Gcaba family and the operators associated with them became his major clients, who went to him for everything, criminal and civil. That’s how the taxi industry works,” said a lawyer with extensive experience in the transport industry. “If you represent one faction, you’re their lawyer. You can’t represent their enemies.”

It was during this time that Hulley’s personal and business relationship with Khulubuse Zuma also flourished.

When President Jacob Zuma was charged with corruption in 2005, he was broke and in need of a lawyer after he had been fired by then president Thabo Mbeki on June 14.

Khulubuse referred his uncle to Hulley.

And the rest is history.

Sporting roots

Hulley, who played tennis under the nonracial SA Council on Sport (Sacos) during his school and university days, comes from an upstanding family of community and sports activists from Wentworth, a south Durban working class township next to the city’s oil refineries.

Wentworth, designated a coloured area under apartheid laws, was a hard township, plagued by gang warfare driven by an illegal alcohol and drug industry that frequently spilled on to the streets.

A strict Catholic upbringing in a relatively well-off family and what neighbours describe as a serious determination to create a better life for himself from an early age ensured Hulley evaded the lure of the street.

Hulley’s father, school principal Archie Hulley, was a leading figure in the sports and civic movement in Wentworth and a staunch member of the Catholic church, to which his son also belongs.

Hulley senior, an anti-apartheid activist, was a founder member of the Wentworth Ratepayers’ Association and the United Committee of Concern (civic organisations aligned to the then United Democratic Front).

It was Hulley senior’s sports activism in Sacos that the family’s old neighbours from the council houses in Constantia Road in Austerville say rubbed off most on Michael.

The younger Hulley’s schoolmates say he was not particularly politically active, a situation he maintains to this day despite his closeness to the head of state and the ANC.

A former Wentworth resident who asked not to be named said the Hulley family was “very involved” in the neighbourhood.

“Michael wasn’t really involved. He kept to himself; studied. He’d greet and carry on about his business.”

Legal advisers who worked with and against Hulley in various court matters paint a picture of a competent lawyer with a lot of influence over his famous client.

“He was very cordial and humble, pleasant to work with,” said one counsel, who asked not to be named.

Another described Hulley as “a very nice guy who never gets unpleasant in court”, but one who played hardball.

From grime to posh Sandton

The relationship with Mandla Gcaba, and through him the Zumas, has been at the centre of Hulley’s rise to riches. His financial journey has taken him from 320 West Street and, later, tiny offices in Durban’s Old Fort Road, to the plush suites he occupies today.

Hulley and Associates is situated in La Lucia Ridge, on the border of Umhlanga, in the same business park housing the offices of another Zuma ally, tycoon Vivian Reddy. The bulk of Hulley’s business goes to his suites at The Forum in Sandton, next to Sandton Square.

Khulubuse Zuma’s spokesperson, Vuyo Mkhize, confirmed that his client and Hulley had known each other since around 1996 – “way before” the president became Hulley’s client. Mkhize said that although Hulley and Khulubuse Zuma had been co-directors of three companies, these were “dormant and are in the process of being deregistered”.

Hulley’s emergence as a businessman closely mirrors Jacob Zuma’s rise to the presidency.

Before 2009, he only held directorships in his own law firm and a now dormant property investment company with his wife Odette, with whom he has two adult children.

Between June 2009 and September 2012, Hulley became a director of nine companies, most of which are deregistered.

Hulley, however, refuses to discuss how he met the president or any details of his relationship with the man who appointed him as presidential legal adviser in 2011. He also won’t say anything about his relationship with the Gcabas.

He did not attempt to hide his irritation when City Press asked him for an interview.

“Why must a professional relationship be subjected to such scrutiny? I’m not the president’s friend. The president came to me as a client, as hundreds of other people did,” Hulley said.

“Why ask all these questions about me?”

Hulley said the current media scrutiny he was under was “a constant source of embarrassment to me”.

“Now any other client I represent will be the subject of scrutiny. The fact that someone is a client comes with a measure of decorum and I prefer to keep it that way.”

He said Zuma had a number of other advisers, but only he was being singled out for this kind of attention.

“There are several advisers appointed by the president. What makes me so unusual? I am just doing what I do. I am at the office right now and about to go into a consultation?…?this is unbecoming.”

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj also failed to respond to detailed questions about the relationship.

However, Hulley’s formal relationship with Zuma is unusual. Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela both had legal advisers, but these worked full-time, unlike Hulley.

“Michael certainly has the president’s trust and is listened to,” said a lawyer close to Hulley.

“This dates back to the days of the corruption trial. He was the one who ran the president’s defence and that kind of trust lasts.”

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