This is Episode 12. If you wish to read from the beginning, the posts are placed in reverse order here.
Written by Niki Moore, edited by Gudrun Kaiser ….. this is a very grim episode of my narrative. There is no light at the end of this tunnel … unless one can count the glow from exploded MTN masts.
In the 24 months it took for our case against MTN to come to court, I learned a couple of things.
Firstly, if the law is an ass, then 90% of legal work can be performed by any reasonably-educated donkey with opposing thumbs. In this case, I was the donkey. I spent weeks patiently typing up documents, printing them, formatting papers, copying them, getting them witnessed and signed, binding them (it might sound trivial, but binding legal papers correctly is crucial, right down to the type of fastener), indexing them, filing them, and delivering them. A trip to court to lodge papers took the best part of a day.
By the end of the process, the court file was a doorstop of majestic proportions, running to several hundred pages. While I am not saying that our legal process was any more complex or voluminous than any other case of this nature, we certainly frightened a lot of trees.
Secondly, 10% of legal expertise consists of knowing exactly which procedural transgressions are most likely to irritate the judge. We were hobbled here, as our legal representative lived in Cape Town (the only person prepared to take on the case) and did not know or understand the KwaZulu-Natal bar. Also, our legal counsel was on the other side of the country and he was safe from having me turn up unexpectedly on his doorstep to demand his attention, so I can confidently say that he did not ‘apply his mind’ as diligently as he could have. As it turned out, this was all crucial to our case, with tragic consequences.
What frustrated me the most was that the City (our Respondent), missed every single deadline to reply or lodge papers and approached the whole matter with a breezy disregard to process, while I would lie awake at night worrying that we had spelled ‘yeronner’ incorrectly. Apparently – as long as you know your judge – watching legal deadlines whizz by is perfectly fine, as long as you have used the correct stapler to put your papers together.
Another thing I learned, was that if a government official decides to ignore an official request for information, there is not much you can do about it. Our case was hampered from Day 1 by the fact that we simply did not have the information we needed. City officials watched lazily as ultimatums whooshed by. Our PAIA (Promotion of Acccess to Information Act) application was simply disregarded. Requests to the municipality for minutes and records were ignored. Officials lied to us with predictable regularity.
The newspapers – mostly notably our local Berea Mail – carried regular stories of our progress, which were picked up by national press. However, MTN’s Jacqui O’Sullivan had concocted a plausible set of lies that she press-sticked to her forehead and trotted out to every query. As a journalist myself, it was intensely annoying to see how reporters would simply print her evasions without interrogating the obvious contradictions. My hair, between rising at the sheer effrontery of the lies and being pulled out in frustration, permanently resembled an elderly dahlia.
We did receive smuggled information from people inside the city council who were just as incensed as we were by the corruption – but with no context it was difficult to build a case, and we could only put this information in a file marked ‘Deeply Suspicious’. So, right from the word go, we were fighting a court case with our shoelaces tied together.
The most important speedbump here – and this is really serious – is that there is no legal framework for prosecuting corruption. When someone takes a bribe, and their employer is determined to cover it up, there is no anti-corruption law that will send them to jail. This is vitally important, because it explains why this country is taking so long to fit our thousands and thousands of terminally corrupt government officials with orange overalls. One can only tackle them on wishy-washy transgressions such as procedural evasions or fiduciary neglect. This is why our kleptocratic ex-president could only be jailed for contempt of court and why our thieving apparatchiks are laughing all the way to the ATM. So, in order for us to expose the city’s Head of Disaster Management, Vincent Ngubane, as a corruption kingpin, we were forced to dance around in a legal daisy field.
Which led to the final thing I learned, too late as it turned out … that the vital 1% of legal expertise is all about knowing which law to use when you go to court. As we found out afterwards, we had used PAJA (the Promotion of Access to Justice Act) as the basis of our claim, whereas – in retrospect – we should have brought a simple interdict. The only excuse we had is that we did not know what we did not know. But that is hindsight, and will be fully detailed when we reach that part of our story.
On top of the slow and ponderous court process, things were not going well for me personally. You might remember that in July 2017 I had visited our local state hospital for a battery of tests? I had received the all-clear and the medical staff even complimented me on my radiant health.
After more than a year of being soaked in MTN’s excessive radiation, it was a very different picture. Cell mast radiation is inflammatory – it gets your cells vibrating like tuning forks. If you are young and strong you can fight this off with not much more than the occasional headache, but when a person is already prone to inflammatory complaints – like migraines, depression, arthritis, fibromyalgia – the result is a little like dropping a handful of minced colleague into a shark tank.
I will not give you a list of the awful things that assailed me. Suffice to say that I could open Dr Proctor’s Big Book of Weird, Nasty and Embarrassing Ailments and throw a dart, and it would hit a malady that I suffered from, including sudden attacks of doctors. I was in such constant pain, even my toenails throbbed. To belabour the point: if I was a dog I would have had myself put down.
Every morning the sun would rise slowly over my house, as if it was not sure it was worth the effort, and I would do an audit to find out if all my various bits and pieces had survived the night.
And – true to fate – everything else was going wrong as well: I had industrial-strength depression; I was defrauded of all my savings; my pets all died; my company collapsed (due to some not-very nice people who took advantage of my distraction to launch a hostile take-over). If I put my life to music, it would sound like one of those dismal country songs.
There were two other people in my street who were affected to the same extent, while the others (shielded by trees and other buildings) reported mere sleeplessness, depression, anxiety and constant headaches.
Then, on Saturday, 10 November 2018, it all changed, when our closest mast burned down. The second-closest, which had been terrorising the residents around the bakery, was utterly destroyed at roughly the same time, by a careless driver who missed a turn and drove for quite a few metres with the green power box attached to his bonnet like a hood ornament.
Within a few weeks, therefore, two masts we were sandwiched between were put out of commission.
(This is perhaps a good place to mention that the destruction of these two masts made absolutely no difference to our cell phone reception, so MTN’s bleats that they were responding to customer requests for better connectivity in our area were shown up to be the lies that they were ….)
The relief was instantaneous. Within a few days, the mood in the entire neighbourhood lifted. The three of us who were most affected, felt as if we had just been released from prison. The pain went away. The headaches stopped. The infections cleared up. The rashes disappeared. I was able to lift my head cautiously above the parapet and dared hope that I could pick up the scattered remnants of my life and rebuild.
But then a private detective arrived in town: a large pink man like a shaved bear, with a chin you could clean pots with and a moustache that looked like he was halfway through eating a hedgehog. He hung around our area, making it clear that his mission was to find me responsible for the destruction and turn me in.
I was uneasy. Not because my conscience was bothering me, but because I knew MTN well enough to believe that this investigator could have a mandate to plant evidence to frame me or bribe a ‘witness’. When you are dealing with an unscrupulous corporation that is out to swat you, it is similar to hearing your mother calling you from a distance by your full name in a particular and familiar tone of voice. Rationality disappears. The fear bypasses your synapses and goes through your lizard brain and tingles at the base of your spine. Every time the doorbell rang, I was convinced it was a SWAT team, ready to say ‘Good morning’ and bundle me into a plain white van.
In the event, the worst that happened was a police raid on my neighbour’s house and a few polite visits from our local police asking leading questions.
Once the sparks had settled, our first response was relief that we no longer had to go to court. But then we realised two things. Corruption is curiously durable. MTN (to whom ‘integrity’ is just a six-letter word starting with ‘i’) and the city (to whom ‘transparency’ is just a twelve-letter word starting with ‘t’) would not allow a few of their ‘valuable customers’ to stand in their way.
They WOULD be back. And we would still need to stop them. And we still needed to expose the corruption. At the end of the day it was my sweetbreads on the chopping block, as I had taken on the risk for the entire project.
So the court case would continue. With a further nightmare not far behind.
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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.