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Ex-South Africa Transport Minister Testifies in Apartheid Spy Trial - 2003-11-17

South Africa's former transportation minister, Mac Maharaj, has begun testifying before a special commission set up to determine whether the country's top prosecutor was a spy for the apartheid regime.

For the first time, the Hefer Commission of Inquiry has heard from one of the men who sparked the apartheid spy scandal. The local news media call the commission The Mac And Mo Show, after the two main accusers, former transport minister Mac Maharaj and ex-ambassador and intelligence operative Mo Shaik.

The two men were to have testified more than a month ago, but they repeatedly asked for postponements because they were trying to gather evidence to support their claims that South Africa's top prosecutor, Bulelani Ngcuka, was a spy for the apartheid regime and had abused his current government position.

When the story first broke in the news media, Mr. Maharaj and Mr. Shaik said they believed Mr. Ngcuka was the agent codenamed RS-452 by the apartheid security forces. But since then, Vanessa Brererton, a former human rights lawyer now living in London, has admitted that she, not Mr. Ngcuka, was agent RS-452.

That disclosure threw the accusers into some disarray. Eventually, the judge leading the commission, Joos Hefer, threatened to hold both of the men in contempt of court if they kept stalling.

Now, after weeks of delays, Mr. Maharaj has begun to testify.

He started by listing his impeccable credentials from the anti-apartheid struggle, when he was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and then went into exile and took a series of leadership positions within the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.

"In December 1977, I was appointed secretary of the ANC underground within South Africa," he said. "I served in that capacity and was made a member of the Revolutionary Council, which was charged with directing the struggle within the country."

In the 1980s, he worked closely with his co-accuser, Mo Shaik, who was a senior ANC intelligence operative. Toward the end of the 1980s, Mr. Maharaj said, Mr. Shaik told him he believed there was an apartheid agent working in the top levels of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, or NADEL.

"By late 1989, early 1990, in a further report to me, he indicated that he believed that he had sufficient information to conclude that in all probability, Mr. Ngcuka was an agent operating within NADEL, amongst other places," he said.

But he offered no hard evidence to support his claim, and under cross-examination he said Mr. Shaik was his only source of information on the matter.

Most of Mr. Maharaj's testimony dealt with how Mr. Ngcuka has conducted himself as national director of public prosecutions, particularly in relation to corruption investigations against Mr. Maharaj and his wife for tax evasion.

Mr. Maharaj said he had been cleared of corruption and bribery, but the case against his wife continues. He said, someone in the prosecutor's office leaked details of both cases to the news media, and the resulting scandal caused his family much trauma.

"Till this day, my children and my wife live under that cloud, set directly by the national director of public prosecutions, denied by him to me on the phone," he said. "If that happens in that office to me, who was supposed to be his leader in the ANC, then what honor do we have in this country? What honor do we have?"

Mr. Maharaj said he believes there was a pattern of corruption investigations against people he regards as heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, including the current deputy president. He says he is speaking out in the interest of truth, and because he believes Mr. Ngcuka is abusing his prosecutorial powers.

Under cross-examination, the commission's chief lawyer, Kessie Naidoo, pressed the ex-minister over his credibility as a witness, given that he, his wife, and several of his close allies have been targets of Mr. Ngcuka's investigations. Mr. Shaik faces similar questions, since one of his brothers is being prosecuted on charges of corruption, fraud, and money laundering.

Mr. Ngcuka has made it clear he believes he is the target of a smear campaign aimed at shutting down his investigations into high-level corruption.

The apartheid spy scandal has rocked the ANC, forcing many party members to choose sides or remain uncomfortably neutral, as senior party leaders and government officials rip each other apart in the press.

Analysts believe the party would like to have the whole thing finished as soon as possible, to minimize the damage it will do to the ANC before next year's general elections. But the process has been agonizingly slow.

Mr. Maharaj is expected to testify for several days, and Mr. Shaik may or may not take the stand afterward. As a former operative of the National Intelligence Agency, he is bound by a secrecy agreement regarding anything he might have learned on the job, including his days as an ANC intelligence agent. He has been threatened with imprisonment by Judge Hefer if he refuses to testify. But he could also be jailed by the government if he breaks his secrecy agreement and discloses classified information.