Some years ago, the phrase "generally corrupt relationship" generated heated debates. It appeared in a civil judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that rejected an application by Jacob Zuma's financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, to reclaim assets confiscated from him after he was convicted of fraud and corruption.
The SCA incorrectly attributed the phrase to the lower court in the asset forfeiture case. In fact, no such phrase had been used by the lower court.
However, in the separate criminal appeal by Shaik in which he sought, without success as well, to have the criminal conviction itself set aside, the SCA didn't use the phrase at all. However, media reports suggested the SCA had used it and attributed it to the criminal trial court that convicted Shaik.
The SCA's error in the civil appeal judgment and the media's subsequent mistake of attributing the mistake to the criminal judgment caused a storm.
Zuma's supporters, when they were still a formidable force, argued that the error meant that Zuma would not have a fair trial. They further argued, as has always been their chorus, the charges should be dropped. The error, they said, was part of the political conspiracy to prevent Zuma from becoming president.
Although the SCA erred and apologised for the wrongful attribution, few can dispute the soundness of the phrase. In fact, the trial court had said there was a "mutually beneficial symbiosis" between Shaik and Zuma. It stated:
"If Zuma could not repay money [he received from Shaik], how else could he do so than by providing the help of his name and political office as and when it was asked, particularly in the field of government contracted work, which is what Shaik was hoping to benefit from.
"And Shaik must have foreseen and, by inference, did foresee that if he made these payments, Zuma would respond in that way. The conclusion that he realised this, even if only after he started the dependency of Zuma upon his contributions, seems to us to be irresistible."
While Shaik's side of the story was ventilated through the entire court system, Zuma's has also been through almost the entire system but only as the longest preliminary. The so-called legal Stalingrad strategy is far from over.
The SCA has recovered from the embarrassing error and has found a reason to use the phrase in a recent judgment. But there wasn't much hullaballoo generated this time. It relates to a political figure who, like Zuma, used his political influence to secure undue gratification.
That political figure is former Northern Cape ANC chairman John Block who pocketed hundreds of thousands of rands channeled from the provincial government via property companies owned by his friends. Block helped the companies to lease properties to the Northern Cape government without following procurement processes and in violation of the Constitution. The evidence paints a picture of direct theft of public money.
Government officials were forced to sign the contracts in contravention of the law. So powerful and influential was John Block that he was appropriately called the "Big Chief".
Block and his associates in corruption were found guilty by the high court and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Their appeal at the SCA largely failed.
The person at the centre of the dodgy deals was Sarel Breda, the businessman who effected the corrupt payments to Block. "In this regard, there seems to me to be no doubt that there was a 'generally corrupt relationship' – a somewhat notorious but apt description – which developed between Mr Block, on the one hand, and Mr Breda and his Trifecta companies, on the other," the SCA found last week. "That Mr Block was prepared to use his political clout to advance Mr Breda's business interests, bears no doubt."
Although the court conceded in the above finding that the phrase is "notorious", probably because of the controversy it had caused in the past, it is clear that corruption of this nature deserves no alternative description. Which is why the phrase is back – fittingly and forcefully.
Interestingly, Block and Zuma are among the last high-profile political figures to face the music as a result of an investigation initiated by the now defunct Scorpions. While the Scorpions had the reputation of tackling corrupt influential people, the same can't be said of the Hawks.
Not a single high-profile political trial has emanated from a Hawks investigation although it's common knowledge that political pressure is often exerted on bureaucrats to bend the rules.
The state capture commission of inquiry has heard evidence that seems to point to the Hawks' complicity in the flourishing of generally corrupt relationships. It "killed" cases.
Unless generally corrupt relationships are described for what they are, they cannot be tackled properly. So, we should welcome the return of the phrase.
- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.
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