Payback, comeback, former judge finds favour

Time of article published Jun 20, 2009

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By Angela Quintal

Former president Thabo Mbeki could probably tell you. So could President Jacob Zuma. It's an old cliche, but what goes around does come around, and if politicians can't be believed, just ask former judge Willem Heath.

The former corruption buster and head of the Special Investigating Unit was confirmed this week as Justice Minister Jeff Radebe's special adviser.

Radebe is Zuma's point man tasked with transforming the judiciary.

Given the dramatic developments of 2001 when he became persona non grata in Mbeki's ANC and was forced to start a new career as a consultant in the private sector aged 56, it must have been a sweet moment for the aggrieved Heath.

For 2001 was the year senior ANC leaders decided they were gatvol of being pushed around by Heath, who had begun investigating allegations of corruption in the arms deal.

Then ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama explained that the ANC had taken a "principled decision" to campaign against Heath's inclusion in a multi-agency probe into the arms deal, because of the "political role" he had assumed and a feeling that he was used by opposition parties to portray the ANC in a bad light.

The Constitutional Court judgment of November 2000, which ruled that a judge could not head the special investigating unit, was pounced on by the ANC as justification to exclude the Heath Special Investigating Unit from the multi-agency probe.

Four cabinet ministers responsible for the arms deal, including Trevor Manuel, Alec Erwin, Mosiuoa Lekota and ironically Radebe himself (then the public enterprises minister) went public with the cabinet's firm belief in the integrity of the controversial arms acquisition programme.

Zuma, the then head of government business, followed up with a stinging letter to the head of Parliament's standing committee on public accounts, Gavin Woods (IFP), who had asked for Heath to be included in the investigation.

Mbeki, who later admitted he was the letter's author, also went on national television to explain why the special investigating unit would not be included and launched an astonishing attack on Heath.

The writing was clearly on the wall. In April that year, Heath duly applied for a special discharge as a judge, but Mbeki refused. Heath had no choice but to resign, forfeiting his benefits in terms of the law, including a salary for life.

Armed with a reference from former president Nelson Mandela - who had appointed him to head the unit in 1997 - Heath set up a consultancy firm, based on his anti-corruption reputation.

He was asked to investigate Cape Town's street-renaming fiasco under then-mayor Peter Marais and continued to hog the headlines as the arms deal played out in Parliament and the courts.

In August 2003 - when news broke that Zuma was under investigation by the Scorpions for corruption - Heath was quoted as saying that the investigation into Zuma's financial affairs was either based on merit or was about "getting to a politician".

A month later, after then-National Prosecuting Authority head Bulelani Ngcuka announced that he would prosecute Zuma's former financial adviser Schabir Shaik, but not Zuma himself, Heath was quoted as saying that the decision was almost undoubtedly motivated by political or commercial interests as there were "no justifiable legal grounds for it".

Heath also expressed his concern in another interview about "the apparent insatiable appetite of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to persecute high-profile citizens and politicians whose commercial or political agendas are in opposition to certain people who can manipulate the course of justice".

Shaik duly went on trial and was convicted of corruption and fraud by Judge Hilary Squires.

Heath had been among the state witnesses.

Two weeks after Shaik's conviction - and exactly four years to the day that the cabinet accepted Heath's resignation - Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president of the country ostensibly because he had been implicated in corruption in the Shaik trial. It was June 14, 2005.

Heath was still the enemy of the ANC but the ruling party had internal battles to fight that would consume it.

Heath's expertise, meanwhile, was sought by prominent businessmen who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, including mining magnates Roger and Brett Kebble and Jeff Levenstein, the former chief executive of the now defunct Regal Bank, who was recently convicted of fraud.

Like Zuma, the three businessmen all had problems with Ngcuka. Heath followed Zuma's example and submitted three separate complaints to Public Protector Lawrence Mushwana about Ngcuka.

Mushwana ruled in May 2004 that Ngcuka had violated Zuma's constitutional rights, although the Kebble and Levenstein complaints seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Heath later acknowledged he was the middleman for Brettle Kebble's payments to "third parties", including employees of Kebble's enemies.

It was Brett Kebble, a benefactor of many ANC politicians - young and old - who publicly insisted that Zuma was the victim of a political plot.

In a documentary by Liesl Gottert, Kebble claimed Ngcuka was part of a politically inspired plot by a cabal of well-known businessmen intent on removing Zuma as Mbeki's successor.

By then Heath was no longer the polecat in some ANC circles, with Zuma himself turning to the former judge for advice. The fact that Heath was a potential state witness in Zuma's impending corruption trial raised eyebrows, although he insisted there was no conflict of interest and he was not part of Zuma's defence team.

When Kebble died in a hail of bullets in September 2005, Heath was asked by the Kebble family to assist police investigations.

He was later pulled off - apparently at the request of National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi - who two years later was himself indicted for corruption and whom Mbeki was accused of protecting.

After Zuma was elected ANC president in December 2007, the chickens came home to roost.

The once-invincible Mbeki had become a lame duck and less than a year later he was "recalled" by the ANC, stripped of the country's presidency before he could complete his second term.

In perhaps a local variation of "my enemy's enemy is my friend", Heath was back in favour with the ANC now under Zuma.

While an ANC sub-committee had been set up in 2001 to ensure Heath was sidelined from the arms deal investigation, seven years later another ANC committee under Lindiwe Sisulu was now seeking his help to ensure that Zuma became South African president without criminal charges hanging over his head.

Heath became part of a so-called brains trust of lawyers and academics, who believed that Zuma's rights had been abused. He was not shy to stand up on public platforms, making his views clear.

Heath made several presentations to Sisulu's committee, meetings that were also attended sometimes by Radebe.

The former judge came under fire from Zuma's detractors, but insisted he had not "swopped sides". Given that Zuma's case had gone on for eight years and would set a terrible precedent for delays, he merely wanted to see justice done, Heath explained.

Asked earlier this year if he believed in Zuma's innocence, Heath replied: "There is no reason to believe that he is guilty. When I was investigating the arms deal, there were no allegations against him at that time."

And asked whether he hoped to work with Zuma if he became president, Heath replied: "I don't entertain such a hope, I like my independence."

Heath believed that the NPA would have no choice but to eventually drop charges.

When Mpshe did exactly that in April, because of the alleged abuse of process and manipulation by former Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy and Ngcuka, Heath insisted it was the only thing to do under the circumstances and that a judge would have thrown the case out of court.

So is Heath's appointment payback for years of loyalty and the wisdom of backing the right horse, when many others refused to? The former judge himself and Radebe's spokesman, Tlali Tlali, say no.

A member of the so-called brains trust around Zuma, Professor Sipho Seepe, agrees.

Seepe believes that after working with Heath, Radebe may have been attracted by the same qualities Mandela had seen when he appointed him to head the unit tasked with investigating maladministration and corruption at national level.

"Heath is more than qualified to do this job. He brings in a practioner's perspective, he is a seasoned forensic investigator, but as a former judge he has an insider understanding of the Bench," said Seepe.

But a former politician disagreed: "I have found it interesting to watch his political persona emerge over recent years. The guy is an astute corridor operator with a nose for opportunities through which to re-establish his public profile. His strategy seems to have been one of worming his way into the ANC.

"His joining Zuma's legal team was a master stroke. Through all this he has established a media profile.

"Considering how the ANC bad-mouthed and trashed him eight years ago, for him to now occupy one of the more influential legal positions in the country is a remarkable story. Part of the story was his determination to prove something to Mbeki."

For a man who was once shortlisted for appointment to the Constitutional Court and a mere seven years later went from hero to zero, Heath is back on top just like his ultimate boss, Zuma.

Now that is what some would call karma.

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