Fourteen years after fleeing South Africa amid fraud allegations, disbarred lawyer Ian Stokes is on trial in the Durban High Court. File picture: Peter Duffy

Durban - A Durban businessman who claims disbarred attorney Ian Stokes stole more than R600 000 he had deposited in his trust account to buy an uMhlanga property claimed on Thursday that, when he queried why the transfer was taking so long, Stokes had told him: “This is Africa, things take a long time.”

However Nils Pearce, a manager at Mercantile Bank, later conceded under cross-examination that “someone said it”, but he could not be sure that it was Stokes.

Stokes fled from South Africa in November 2000 amid allegations that he had stolen millions from clients and associates in both his law firm and a separate Road Accident Fund claims business he ran.

He returned four years later and is now standing trial in the Durban High Court on a single charge of theft relating to a “general deficiency” of about R7 million in his trust account.

He has pleaded not guilty.

Pearce is one of four State witnesses who claim they deposited “conveyancing” money into his trust account which, the State alleges, Stokes stole.

Giving evidence before Judge Esther Steyn, Pearce said he had bought the Marine Drive property in about July 2000 for R575 000 and had transferred the full purchase price, plus another R42 000 for costs, into Stokes’s account.

“But the property was not transferred. I phoned Stokes a few times to ask why and he said: ‘Things take time, this is Africa,’” Pearce said.

“I later discovered from the seller’s daughter that the office was closed, Mr Stokes was no longer in the country and the funds were not in the account.”

He said at the time the seller needed the money quickly because she was very sick with cancer and her husband needed to move into an old age home.

“The seller wanted to cancel the deal. We had a dispute because I did not want to. The house was eventually let and they took the rental.”

Pearce said the Attorneys’ Fidelity Fund paid out directly to the seller to complete the transaction, but it took about two years before the deal was finalised and the property was registered in his name.

Under cross examination by defence advocate Jimmy Howse, he initially claimed that he had no knowledge of any “legitimate delay” in the transfer but, after being shown a statement he made to the fund, he acknowledged that the seller had in fact died in August that year and the transfer had been delayed because of this.

The advocate also suggested that he had never spoken to Stokes and that Stokes had never told him things were slow in Africa.

Pearce replied: “I was put through to a person I was told was Mr Stokes. I know someone I was complaining to said that. In my mind it was him, but I can’t be 100 percent sure.”

The trial continues.

The Mercury