In defence of Boesak

Despite the evidence, the ANC could not accept the guilt of its comrade, writes Patrick Laurence.

The conviction of former ANC icon Allan Boesak on three counts of theft and one of fraud has stunned the normally prolix ANC propagandists into silence, perhaps because they had for so long convinced themselves that he was innocent. The refusal to even contemplate that Boesak — who was sentenced to six years imprisonment — might be guilty of embezzlement of funds donated to his now defunct Foundation for Peace and Justice has a long history. It dates back to late 1994 and early 1995 when Scandinavian donors, concerned that money sent to the foundation had not been properly accounted for, commissioned the Johannesburg legal firm, Bell, Dewar & Hall, to investigate.

At that stage Boesak, a former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, was South Africa’s ambassador-designate to the United Nations in Geneva. The ANC, rejecting the view that the integrity of the person appointed to represent South Africa in a pivotal diplomatic post should be above suspicion, preferred to assume that Boesak was innocent until proved guilty. The option of suspending the appointment pending the outcome of the inquiry — a move which would have presumed neither guilt nor innocence — was not taken.

The next phase came with the release of the report conducted by Bell, Dewar & Hall. Its core finding was contained in a single damning sentence: “Dr Boesak has enriched himself substantially at the expense of the foundation.” The report noted that Boesak had attempted to justify a monthly income “far in excess of what can reasonably be expected” by saying that he had left his personal affairs in the hands of the foundation’s bookkeeper, Freddie Steenkamp, and that Steenkamp — who admitted to investigators that he had stolen money — had implicated him in the theft. It then said of Boesak “. . . the naiveté of his explanations and the huge benefits derived by him, forces one to the inescapable conclusion that, in the absence of plausible explanations by Dr Boesak, he has unlawfully appropriated to himself money to which he was not entitled.”

In February 1995, faced with the adverse implications of the report and with an investigation by the Office for Serious Economic Offences (OSEO) pending, Boesak withdrew as ambassador-designate to the UN.

In April of that year the affair took a new turn with the release of a three-page report on an investigation conducted on the orders of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki by Mojanku Gumbi, a legal adviser in his office. Her report effectively exonerated Boesak. It declared that there was “no evidence that Dr Boesak misappropriated foundation funds.” One of the reasons given for her conclusion was that the evidence used against Boesak came from his bookkeeper who had “himself admitted misappropriation of foundation funds.”

Gumbi divided the allegations against Boesak into two categories: those relating to receipt of money from the foundation’s urban discretionary fund and those relating to staff loans that he received from the foundation.

On the urban discretionary fund Gumbi came to two central conclusions. First, that Steenkamp had lost the vouchers recording transactions for the account; that the account was “reconstructed from memory”; that, as a result, 360 entries were “totally unsubstantiated”, and that it would therefore be “dangerous” to draw any conclusions from the account. Second, assuming Steenkamp’s “good faith and the accuracy of his memory”, R851,400 was deposited into the account by Boesak from his personal funds; that Boesak and his wife Elna “misused” R612,862 from the account, and that, therefore, the foundation actually owed him R238,538.

On the question of staff loans Gumbi stated that the entries showed that Boesak had borrowed R95,799.13 (not R1,139,439 as reflected in the Bell, Dewar and Hall report). Noting that the journal entries were either not made or were incorrect she questioned the “reliability of the entries”. But she nevertheless concluded that Steenkamp had used funds transferred into the account by Boesak to “pay some of his accounts”.

Bell, Dewar & Hall responded by issuing a 16-page point by point refutation of Gumbi’s report.

On Steenkamp it said: “Mr Steenkamp knowingly incriminated himself in answering our questions. We think it extremely unlikely that he would have lied to incriminate himself. What one might have expected is that Mr Steenkamp lied to exculpate himself and in so doing incriminate Dr Boesak. He did not do so.” On the purported reconstruction of the urban discretionary account from Steenkamp’s memory, it said: “The entries were based upon bank statements. For many entries it is clear where the money went and from where it came. It is not ‘dangerous’ to draw conclusions from these entries.”

On the purported payment of R851,400 by Boesak from his own funds into the foundation account, it asked why Boesak had not disclosed the payment to them during their investigation and why even then he did not provide a full substantiation with supporting documentation. It concluded: “His failure to do so leads us to believe that the so-called explanation is not correct and is in fact a recent invention by Dr Boesak to try and escape the consequences of his prior actions.”

President Nelson Mandela, either attaching no weight to Bell, Dewar & Hall’s criticism of Gumbi’s report or being unaware of it, gave the imprimatur of his approval to Boesak. He described Boesak as one of South Africa’s “most gifted men”, adding that he “deserved a very high position”. Those remarks initiated speculation that Boesak would be appointed to an alternative diplomatic posting. Mbeki, to his credit, was more restrained, remarking that Boesak would have to accept responsibility for “the mess” at the foundation and await the outcome of the investigation into his affairs by the OSEO. But later, in May 1996, Mbeki returned to the fray and used the controversy as a stick with which to beat the press.

In a question and answer interview with the magazine Millennium, he said: “The quality of journalism is very poor in South Africa . . . when one journalist writes a story the rest follow suit. Take the Allan Boesak story. A law firm in Johannesburg does the investigation. They give us a report and they issue a statement saying ‘Allan Boesak has enriched himself’. We looked at the report and found it said nothing of the sort. What [it] actually said is that Allan Boesak is owed R400,000. It was incorrect to have said Allan Boesak has enriched himself . . . We are not saying he hasn’t, but we don’t have the facts. The press reports that we found Allan Boesak not guilty. So my office called the press again. We had a three-hour meeting [and] in the end everybody agreed that our judgement was correct. The news the following day reported that the deputy president said Allan Boesak was not guilty.”

Judging from the verbatim quote, Mbeki neither dealt with Gumbi’s statement that there was “no evidence” that Boesak had misappropriated funds nor explained why that, and the associated finding that the foundation owed him money, should not be interpreted as an exoneration.

There was then a hiatus in the saga until early 1997 when Boesak returned to South Africa after the Western Cape attorney-general found that Boesak had a prima facie case to answer and decided to prosecute him. The decision was presumably based in part on a report sent to him from the OSEO. Justice minister Dullah Omar welcomed him at the airport and is reported to have declared that the controversial clergyman was a victim of “struggle accounting”. That suggested that he was an arithmetical innocent ensnared in the difficulties of recording the inflow of money from abroad during the last years of white government. Omar denied the statement attributed to him, though several newspapers quoted him as using that phrase in his welcoming speech.

Later, in about September last year when Boesak’s trial was in progress, Mandela — who is said to have helped Boesak raise money for his defence — went even further. In a peak-hour radio interview he said that the prosecution had failed even to establish a prima facie case against Boesak, thus effectively declaring him innocent while the trial was still in progress. When Boesak was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in March, the ANC retreated into silence on the verdict. Mbeki’s spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa, however, defended the Gumbi report, stating that it was based on the facts available at the time. Comparison of the judgment delivered by Justice John Foxcroft with the Bell, Dewar & Hall report suggests the opposite: at least some of the facts unearthed during the trial were already accessible and had been uncovered by Bell, Dewar & Hall when they concluded to the discomfort of the ANC that Boesak had substantially enriched himself. In fairness to Gumbi, however, it should be recorded that Steenkamp, who had implicated Boesak in testimony given during his own earlier trial, retracted that testimony during Boesak’s trial.

Justice Foxcroft refused Boesak permission to appeal but permitted him to petition Chief Justice Mahomed for consent to appeal. In his petition, which was lodged shortly before Focus went to press, Boesak charged that the trial court had been adversely influenced against him by media reports, a plea which resonated with Mbeki’s complaints about the poor quality of South African journalism. Once again the media was being blamed.