Chipping off the old Block…Comment on this story
Fears are mounting that justice could emerge as the only significant legal casualty as the NPA moves to exonerate figures of influence from the taint of alleged corruption in the notorious “Amigos” case – and political alliances are horse-traded in the ANC’s increasingly manic succession battle.
Senior NPA officials confirmed this week that they were under “immense pressure” from the NPA nationally to drop the charges against John Block, Northern Cape ANC strongman and MEC for finance, economic development and tourism.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the sources said they believed the pressure was being exerted directly by the head of the NPA’s Specialised Commercial Crime Unit, Lawrence Mrwebi.
The moves come on the heels of a controversial decision by the NPA to withdraw charges against six KwaZulu-Natal officials, including two senior ANC officials – former MEC for health, currently Speaker in the KZN legislative assembly, Peggy Nkonyeni and economic development MEC Mike Mabuyakula – who had been charged with bribery and corruption in their dealings with flamboyant Uruguayan businessman Gaston Savoi’s Intaka group of companies.
The KZN nolle prosequi (a formal notice of abandonment by a plaintiff or prosecutor of all or part of a suit) decision was preceded by the removal – without reasons being furnished – of former NPA provincial head Simphiwe Mlotshwa in July this year. Mlotshwa was replaced in an acting capacity by state advocate Moipone Noko, who lost less than a month in deciding that there were “no prospects of a successful prosecution”.
It was applauded by the ANC, with provincial secretary and ally of President Jacob Zuma, Sihle Zikalala, accusing opponents of using the Amigos matter for political gain.
While at the head of the authority in KZN, Mlotshwa had vigorously proceeded with building a case against Savoi and his alleged co-conspirators, seeming to hit prosecutorial paydirt in September last year when two of Savoi’s co-accused, businessmen Ansano Romani and Donald Miller, entered into a plea bargain agreement with the NPA. Pleading guilty and agreeing to pay fines of R100 000 (half of which would be conditionally suspended), the two confessed to playing a role in artificially inflating prices for Savoi’s patent Wataka purifiers, and made substantial documentation available to investigators.
Sources close to the NPA told the Sunday Tribune that a very senior member of the ANC in the province, with access to insider information about an alleged R1 million bribe paid into the party kitty to sweeten the deal, had agreed to assist prosecutors in getting to the bottom of the scandal.
The “Amigos” case – involving multiple arrests and running for nearly three years in the Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town and Kimberley courts – centres on the sale of water purifiers and oxygen generators at inflated prices to public health facilities in KwaZulu-Natal, the Northern Cape and Limpopo. Investigators estimate R44m is involved in KZN, along with over R100m in the Northern Cape.
Block, the ANC’s chairman in the Northern Cape, has been identified as a co-director with Savoi in a subsidiary styled as Intaka Northern Cape and – as traced by forensic auditor Trevor White – the beneficiary of a series of cash payments into other companies controlled by Block from Savoi. Block has since resigned from Intaka Northern Cape.
Deals around Savoi’s Wataka water purifiers and Oxyntaka oxygen generators were allegedly routinely sweetened with kickbacks to officials and politicians, as well as donations to the ANC. This was carefully detailed in papers before the courts, most notably in reports prepared by White, and backed up by affidavits deposed by local prosecutors and state witnesses.
But as the NPA second-guesses its prosecutions, those witnesses also appear to be in the crosshairs. Particularly at stake in relation to Block is an affidavit deposed by former Kimberley Hospital chief executive Hamid Shabbir – who skipped the country for the United Arab Emirates in 2009 after Hawks sleuths closed in.
Approached by Hawks investigators in Abu Dhabi in February last year, and agreeing to appear as a Section 204 witness for the state, Shabbir – who also confesses to accepting sweeteners – implicates Block at every level of the dubious procurement processes that led to the cash-strapped Northern Cape government acquiring R112m in Savoi’s machinery.
Several of the Watakas – basically ordinary swimming pool chlorinators fitted to water tanks and sold for around R2.5m a pop – had never even been connected over the past two years, and many others had broken down.
But despite the fact that it tallies with White’s findings, the NPA moved to distance itself from Shabbir’s testimony, describing it in papers before the Kimberley court as “vague, evasive and [requiring] more clarity”. On this basis the NPA repudiated Shabbir as a Section 204 state witness, choosing instead to attach his property – and weakening the case against Block in the process.
Shabbir’s affidavit, however, also speaks to the role played by former KZN Health MEC Nkonyeni in allegedly promoting Savoi’s interests. He puts her in the frame as a sponsored guest of Savoi at a presentation around the marketing of chemicals to feed his machines. It was a key element in Savoi’s business plan that health facilities buying his products also tie themselves into deals around the chemicals used by the machines – at allegedly massively inflated prices.
In Northern Cape ANC elections in June, Block – who mobilised mass support at court appearances – defeated his closest rival for provincial leadership by 496 votes to 32.
The former ANC Youth League firebrand has been associated with President Jacob Zuma’s nemesis, Julius Malema, and party strategists will be aware that whoever has Block’s support will almost certainly have the support of the Northern Cape at Mangaung.