By Santosh Beharie
Professor Themba Sono, who caused a stir during his startling and, at times, amusing testimony against fraud accused, businessman Schabir Shaik, in the Durban High Court this week, is as colourful a character today as he was in 1957, when he first became a firebrand activist.
Born in Polokwane, Limpopo, in 1942, Sono, like millions of others, learnt from a young age the daily horrors faced by black people living in South Africa.
Attending primary school under a tree in his village was a way of life for him and his young classmates. It was, however, at that impressionable age that Sono adopted a rebellious attitude.
His schoolteacher father decided to pack him off to attend high school in Pretoria, in the hope that his son's behaviour would improve, but Sono had other ideas.
"I was your average stone-throwing youth and spoke out against Europeans and their mistreatment of blacks.
"And I was also expelled from many high schools because of this," recalls Sono, who became a political activist at the age of 15.
But it was perhaps one day in 1972, when Sono, the president of the South African Students' Organisation (Saso) at the time, became embroiled in the biggest controversy of his young political career.
He was forcibly escorted from the venue of Saso's annual general council meeting and expelled from the organisation.
Freedom fighter and part-time lecturer, Strini Moodley, Saso's publications director at the time, recalls that day, when he was the first to put forward a resolution to have Sono expelled.
"We were a five-man executive and had decided to each compile a report, which I was to make into a composite report that Themba was to present to Saso delegates. But Themba refused to hand his report over.
"By then we had also received intelligence that Themba was visiting the United States embassy in Pretoria and were already suspicious of him.
"We soon realised that Themba was going to present his own report to the delegates. He stepped out of line. We had to stop him physically before he could take to the podium.
"The meeting was adjourned and we then formed a resolution to expel Themba from Saso with immediate effect. He was then escorted from the premises," said Moodley.
But Sono dismissed as lies and reacted angrily to the claim that he was physically removed from the meeting. He also claimed to have resigned from the Saso and was not expelled.
"I was the president of the organisation at the time and I made some propositions which the crowd did not like. Because of that, I decided to leave soon afterwards.
"But nobody physically removed me from that gathering. What happened that day is also contained in my book Reflections on the Origins of Black Consciousness. I just wish people would read more in this country before making comments about things they don't know about," said Sono.
Moodley, however, disagreed with Sono and his book. "I was there and am willing to meet Sono face to face to prove that I am telling the truth."
Moodley said intelligence reports proved to be true, because a few weeks after expelling Sono from Saso, Sono left for the US, where he lived for more than 20 years before returning.
Today the controversial professor has an opinion on everything, from US President George Bush to African refugees and corrupt politicians, to the Gautrain.
He served as a syndicated columnist for the Independent Group for a number of years.
At the start of his testimony this week, he had no qualms about telling the packed court whom he had voted for in the 1994 elections.
"I voted in Gauteng - nationally for the ANC and regionally for the IFP," he said, much to the amusement of those in the public gallery.
He drew even more gasps when he told the court that he was merely a "rented black skin" at Shaik's company, Nkobi Holdings, where he served as an executive director for less than a year in 1996. But, until now, the public at large has known very little about Sono, formerly a
Gauteng MPL representing the Democratic Party.
He joined the Independent Democrats (ID) in June 2003 and is currently a member of the Gauteng Provincial Legislature and is also the national deputy president of the ID.
Sono is the immediate past president of the South African Institute of Race Relations (1998-2003). Other past position include: President of the Free Market Foundation (1997-2000), university professor in the US, Canada, Europe, East Asia, North Africa and South Africa (1974-2002) and President of Saso (1972). He was a founding member of the Black People's Convention (BPC).
A divorcee with three adult children, Sono is an author of more than a dozen books, and a contributor to more than 300 other publications.
He was a political activist from 1957 and continued "on and off" until he left for the US in 1973, when he read for two of his degrees.
In June 2000 he was invited to join the Democratic Party and represented it in the Gauteng legislature until April 2003.
Sono aspires to improve what he believes to be very poor democracy in South Africa.
"We need more transparency in our government. And this government has to be more accountable to its people."
During his exiled years in the United States, Sono protested many times on radio talk shows, television and in the streets of Washington against the US administration's support for the apartheid regime.
He also protested against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and even sent a letter of protest to the Iraqi embassy in Washington at time.
Sono once even accused refugees from African countries, such as Nigeria, Cameroon and Ethiopia, of regarding South Africa as an economic haven rather than a political sanctuary. His views on refugees were formed when Sono himself sought refugee status in the US in the 1970s.
There, he had to stand before an American judge to defend his family's application for refugee status.
Regarding his testimony at Shaik's trial this week, Sono said on Saturday that he was satisfied with his performance.
"There is no lie that I told during my testimony and that is why I was so confident," he said.
Sono said he had predicted Shaik's demise a long time ago.
"In fact, in the first two months of meeting Schabir, I knew that he would fall some day. He was just too arrogant, self-crazy and cocksure.
"I thought I could help him because it was a shame to see him drift like a loose cannon. But I was wrong," he said.
Sono said he had managed to get back only R60 000 of the R75 000 he lent Shaik in 1996 "after many years of court battles. Of that money, I received only R43 000, because I had to pay the rest to my lawyers".
Sono said he had received numerous phone calls and visits, mainly from well-wishers, since he wrapped up his testimony in what has been dubbed the "trial of the decade" on Friday.
This was the cutting remark from Shaik shortly after his case was postponed in the Durban High Court on Friday.
He was responding to the earlier startling testimony of the state's first witness, Sono.
A former executive director of Shaik's company, Nkobi Holdings, Sono told a packed courtroom that when he lent Shaik R75 000 to pay staff salaries in December 1996, Shaik had told him: "Themba, my friend, you are a dear brother, you have done something for me that even my brothers have never, ever, done before."
Shaik said that Sono's comments were a cheap attempt to cause friction between him and his brothers. "Blood is thicker than water," said Shaik.
The accused has so far been accompanied to court every day by his brothers - either Chippy, Mo or Yunus, or all of them.
Before leaving court, Shaik said he was looking forward to some spiritual time with his family on the eve of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which started on Saturday. His trial is set to resume on Monday.