This is Episode 11. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.
Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser …..
Sorry for the break in transmission: we were sideswiped by the news this last week that a Senior Manager at eThekwini Municipality, Claire I-Never-Met-a-Cell-Mast-Application-I-Didn’t-Like Norton, APPROVED the MTN cell masts. When we enquired how she had managed to overlook some fairly crucial flaws, we discovered that she had joined the Jacqui O’Sullivan School of Advanced Lying (with Head of Department Vincent Ngubane and Councilor Fawzia Peer as proud alumni).
She referred vaguely to some ‘Agreement’, but when we asked – as we have been doing for the last four years – to see this ‘Agreement’, we got the stone wall once again. This is a developing story, as they say, but in the meantime we will have to go back and continue our story from 2017 …
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a … lawyer.
In our case, we did not have the fortune, but we did need a lawyer. This is because another truth, universally acknowledged, is that the only way to get a South African government official to even consider doing their job, is to take them to court.
In the ‘olden days’, an official’s importance within their respective bureaucracies was determined by the size of the carpet in their office. Nowadays, it is their number of adverse court findings. In the offices of some ministers, the piles of writs are so high that a visitor can only get into the room sideways.
So – faced as we were by the completely blank wall of silence from our local government and from MTN – we felt our only remaining option would be to take them to court. At the very least, they would be compelled to reveal the mechanisms behind this deal.
However, wanting a lawyer and getting a lawyer are two different things. If I had felt that my visit to a State Hospital had been like a journey to the centre of the Earth, nothing could have prepared me for a fossick through the wasteland that is the legal profession.
Lawyers occupy a rarefied stratum of the atmosphere, where they inhale money with every breath. We, on the other hand, were somewhere down below the Cretaceous layer. As we were about to find out, there is no such thing as affordable justice.
I had already had an arresting experience with a lawyer called Kobus Swart. He had fired off one letter to the municipality – the one that had caused the city’s Legal Department to order MTN to cease and desist. This was the letter that had hatched much general hilarity at MTN and in the Disaster Management Unit, where legal letters are extremely useful for playing office basketball.
Kobus was, unfortunately, an INTERESTING individual. He always insisted that we have our consultations after hours, on his imitation-Chesterfield couch. After a while I got tired of this, and warned him, mock-playfully, that fondling his clients – while perhaps acceptable to the female variety – might be misunderstood by any red-blooded male. Kobus became nasty after that and stopped taking my calls.*
And so the merry-go-round began. I went to the Legal Aid Department, but they turned me down because, in their book, I was earning too much money. The fact that I was earning no money at all held no water … I owned property (which I could not live in), I drove a car (which I was living in), I could eat regular meals (OK, you got me there), therefore I was middle class and did not qualify for legal aid.
After that, I began contacting lawyers. In each case I was politely turned down and referred to someone else, who in turn refused to take the job. As one lawyer explained, the municipality was a great employer of lawyers and was generous in wasting expensive time and running up huge legal bills. The last thing any of them wanted to do was antagonise such a lucrative client.
Some of the lawyers were quite upfront about this, others were more circumlocutory, but their bottom line was that they wanted to look after their bottom line.
I began to feel like a speck of antibiotic in a Petri dish as I found myself in the middle of an ever-expanding circle of lawyers who were too busy to take my calls.
In desperation, I went to see an advocate who owed me a favour. The lift took me to his top-floor seafront office with the wide view of the harbour, where I had to hack my way through the pile of the carpet. I explained to him that this was an open-and-shut case: both MTN and the municipality kept telling us we were wrong and that they had ‘Agreements’, but whenever we asked to see copies of these ‘Agreements’, they coughed distractedly and resumed an advanced course of Ceiling Study.
The advocate stroked his chin and told me that he would certainly represent us, at the special discounted rate of R75 000, payable upfront.
“Um,” I said, unpeeling my tongue from the back of my throat, “This really is a slam-dunk of a case. Could you not do it on a contingency basis and ask for costs?”
“There is no such thing as a slam-dunk case,” he replied expensively. “And even if you won, and did ask for costs, it would not cover your bill.”
This was gloomy news indeed.
But then we seemed to have something of a breakthrough. Joanne Hathrill, an ACDP ward councillor for Durban North (where they were also steaming gently over the MTN juggernaut) told us that a fervent supporter of the ACDP was a lawyer, and was keen to help us. Not only that, but she had an advocate who would take the matter to the High Court on our behalf. Their entire community in Durban North were just as incensed by the secrecy and dishonesty around this project as we were.
So a group of us went to see attorney Annie Pravda one evening, at her house in Durban North.
It was a very strange meeting. Most of it was taken up with a lecture from Annie about how important she was. It seemed the mere fact of working with her was enough to rout the opposition. And because she was so magnificently talented, generous and kind, she would help us … it was, she said, her duty as a Christian and generally fine human being.
Afterwards, in the street outside Annie’s house, we went into a bit of a huddle. While we all privately agreed that Annie Pravda was a couple of Froot Loops short of a cereal selection, she was the only lawyer thus far who was prepared to represent us at all, let alone pro bono. I was elected as the liaison for the group, and we would ask her to recruit an advocate to take the case forward.
And so it proceeded … swimmingly, we thought … until Annie Pravda presented me, after a few weeks, with a bill: R6 000, for consultation and collating some papers.
I was as shocked out of my socks as when you confidently take a step that isn’t there. Once my teeth had stopped rattling, I tried reasoning with her. But her mental compass had swung round to point due Money, and she was adamant that we had been smoking those very same socks if we thought that someone with her celebrated talents would deign to work for free.
In the event, a benefactor stepped in and paid the bill on our behalf. But it shook us as a group. None of us were wealthy people – heck, most of us regarded a hamburger as haute cuisine – and we had just been given another nasty taste of the capriciousness of the law.
We came close to giving up. None of us were really movers and shakers – we were more moppers and sweepers – and faced with these kinds of obstacles, we felt like raising the white flag.
So we had another community meeting, caucus edition.
It was the injustice of it that burned me up … where was the equity in paying rates and taxes when those people whose salaries you paid were quite happy to scrape you off their shoe?
I told our group that I had, through a friend of a friend, finally managed to approach a legal person who was prepared to represent us for a minimal fee. But our group felt that even this minimal fee was too much.
“Well, then,” I declared grandly. “I will have to take the risk myself. Alone!”
“You’re going to need to apply for one,” muttered a voice from the floor.
And that was that.
I resolved to eat dry bread for a couple of months, sell a few belongings, and scrape together the initial fee. It was going to be hard, but it had to be done. In our innocence, we genuinely believed that right and truth and justice would prevail. Seeing that the municipal manager had already announced, publicly, that they would co-operate with us to get to the bottom of this, we were confident that we would soon get the answers we needed and the justice we thought we deserved.
What could possibly go wrong?
* Kobus, in his nastiness, actually did a lot of long-lasting damage. I won’t go into detail, but a rampaging lawyer can do a lot of harm. I was considering laying a complaint with the authorities on a couple of charges, but then he died of a heart attack. Proving, I suppose – against all evidence – that he actually had one.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this series of articles are purely those of the writer, they are not endorsed by Safrea or any of its members.