What caused the Ayob, Mandela spat?


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Sunday Argus

What went wrong? Ismail Ayob and Nelson Mandela were good friends before a bitter court battle. Photo:Sunday Argus

It was a moment of anger that ended a life-long friendship forever.

It was a brief fury that caused Ismail Ayob, 64, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela's long-serving attorney, to pay R700 000 of the Nelson Mandela Trust's money two years ago into trusts set up for each of Mandela's eight children and grandchildren.

It is this money - money that went to Mandela children, not to Ayob - that, in terms of a Johannesburg High Court order issued on Tuesday, Ayob must repay to the Nelson Mandela Trust (NMT). This is the former president's personal and family trust and is not to be confused with other trusts with which Mandela is connected.

It was also a moment that this week precipitated much public muck-raking. Ayob made a number of aspersions about Mandela. George Bizos, an advocate and an NMT trustee, retaliated.

All of this threatened to dent the iconic status of the first president of democratic South Africa.

Ayob has said that it was neither anger nor wiliness that fuelled his decision to pay the beneficiaries from NMT funds. He said it was his concern for Mandela's children and grandchildren.

But, from 2006's court papers, which kicked off the legal action that ended in this week's agreement and order, it is clear that, in the view of Ayob's fellow trustees, Bizos and Wim Trengove, another advocate, Ayob had not been motivated solely by concern for the children.

The 2006 court papers note that "tension" had arisen between Mandela and Ayob by 2003, when Mandela asked Ayob to relinquish sole control of the trust. Ayob agreed to the request but did little to comply with it, the papers show.

And the papers question why Ayob paid out the R700 000 to the children's trusts two years after being asked to step down, when his apparent unwillingness to leave the trust was coming to one of its periodic heads.

Whatever his motivation, Ayob made the payments to the children and grandchildren without the permission of his fellow trustees, which was unlawful.

More importantly, in the view of Bizos, Trengove and presumably Mandela, Ayob's payment of the money was not only technically unlawful, it was also contemptuous. He was, his fellow trustees believe, "using" the children to cause trouble with the trust and Mandela, presumably because he was angry at losing his pre-eminent position.

Nevertheless, Ayob must now repay money he did not receive. If he wants to recoup it, he will have to take legal action against the Mandela children. That could be fruitless, deeply embarrassing, or both.

In terms of Tuesday's high court order, Ayob must also pay the NMT R90 561 paid by him from its funds to Ismail Ayob Management and Consulting Services (Amacs), a subsidiary section of Ayob's legal practice, for "attending" to the accounting and management of the trust for four years. Some observers familiar with accounting say Ayob charged very little and ask why he should have to repay the full amount.

Trengove is not saying anything on the record: "An agreement was reached. I am not going to prolong this debate."

But it is clear from 2006's court papers that Bizos and Trengove believed that the NMT was virtually dormant and that there ought to have been virtually no bookkeeping charges. And Amacs got the job of doing the books without Bizos and Trengove being consulted.

So why did Ayob, after going to court, and, in his view, being treated nastily by the NMT, agree to Tuesday's settlement?

Ayob said this week that he did not have the money to fight a prolonged legal battle.

But perhaps the best explanation came from one of the six senior counsel of the Johannesburg bar, not connected with the matter, whom The Sunday Independent canvassed: "If you have been messing around with a trust, albeit technically, and especially if the plaintiff is the equivalent of Mother Teresa, you had better settle."


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