- Buffalo City stopped paying the legal fees of four former senior councillors implicated in the Nelson Mandela funeral scandal.
- Among those affected is Sindiswa Gomba, who described the latest development as a politically-motivated ploy.
- The four have to find new a lawyer before the start of court arguments on 12 April.
Four of the 14 people accused of siphoning R10 million from the Buffalo City Metro, after allegedly disguising it as payment for the funeral preparations of the late Nelson Mandela in 2013, have been dumped by their lawyer after the metro council stopped footing their legal bill.
On Wednesday, their representative, advocate Mike Maseti, formally informed East London High Court Judge Igna Stretch that his instructing law firm had withdrawn from representing former Buffalo City Metro speaker Luleka Simon-Ndzele, former mayor Zukiswa Ncitha, former councillor and axed provincial health MEC Sindiswa Gomba and the municipality's former supply chain manager, Thembelani Sali.
Speaking on behalf of the four outside the court, Gomba said the lawyer withdrew because the metro had cancelled payments - a move she described as very suspicious.
She revealed that she and the others couldn't afford to pay legal fees on their own.
Arguments in the trial will only start from 12 April at the High Court in Bhisho, the province's capital.
READ | Sindiswa Gomba fired as Eastern Cape health MEC amid Nelson Mandela funeral fraud case
Gomba said the trial was likely to drag on for three months, with legal fees expected to climb to more than R2 million.
"Suddenly, now that we have clinched a date to argue our case, the metro is withdrawing funding. You may not know whether that in itself is a political ploy to create problems for us," said Gomba.
Gomba said it was a blessing in disguise that they would have until April to find new lawyers.
Gomba and 13 others, who include ANC heavyweights and businesspeople, face 27 counts relating to fraud, corruption, money laundering and contravening the Municipal Finance Management Act.
They are accused of misleading the municipality into believing that it had an obligation to make money available for the funeral and memorial service of former president Mandela in December 2013.
According to the charge sheet, once R10 million was availed, the group acted with a common purpose to defraud and manipulate municipal procurement processes through illegal deviation.
They then allegedly manipulated the situation, so that funding could be used for other purposes than for what they were officially approved for.
Gomba was fired by Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane on 18 February after she was charged.
ALSO READ | 'I am shocked. It's painful': Sacked Eastern Cape Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba on her dismissal
The sacking was based on the ANC's step-aside rule, which was meant to discipline comrades facing serious formal charges.
Gomba took a swipe at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
"This is hogwash. Let me be frank about it, it's hogwash, and at the end of the day you can't help but wonder what kind of a credible institution can come up with such charges. The charges are that I was in cahoots with people from procurement in BCM. I had no role in procurement as a politician," said Gomba.
Gomba described the State's allegation, that she sat in a meeting which unlawfully handpicked a service provider, as a "blatant lie".
She claimed, without substantiation or evidence, that the charges against her are politically-motivated.
Asked to respond to Gomba's statement, the NPA's spokesperson, advocate Mthunzi Mhaga, said:
The State has lined up 54 witnesses, including a long list of ANC heavyweights. Most notable are the names of former Eastern Cape premiers, Noxolo Kieviet and Mbulelo Sogoni.
Called for comment, the metro's spokesperson, Samkelo Ngwenya, said: "We are unable to comment on the matter until council, which is the highest authority, express itself on behalf of the municipality. So until a report is presented to council on the reasons behind our decisions, we will await that period before we clarify to the public."
All the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges.
On Wednesday, Judge Stretch postponed the matter to Thursday for accused 10, Dean William Fanoe, and his company, Mantella Trading 522 CC, which is accused 11, to submit their application for separation of trial.