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Masa Kekana recalls the story of Zuko Nonxuba, a lawyer from the Eastern Cape who acquired a whole lot of wealth in the most devious way

As journalists, we are exposed to all sorts of interesting characters; some corrupt, some greedy, some devious, and some brave, principled, and inspiring. And every now and then, we come across really awful people who do despicable things to others. The things sane, ordinary people could never even imagine.

This year I started working on a story of a dodgy lawyer who was stealing from children living with cerebral palsy. How? You might immediately wonder. The short answer is through weak governance and a fragile health system.

If ever there was an antithesis of Robin Hood, it would be Zuko Nonxuba, a lawyer from the Eastern Cape.

How Nonxuba allegedly stole close to R600 million from the Department of Health since 2014

The modus operandi…

Zuko Nonxuba, a lawyer from the Eastern Cape, would have recruiters on the ground in Eastern Cape villages who scout medical negligence cases in the poorest most remotest parts of the province. It’s no secret that provincial health departments, like others in the country, are under resourced and facing challenges that in a few cases cause unnecessary and quite frankly unacceptable medical negligence cases that can be avoided. That is where unscrupulous Nonxuba comes in. His recruiters on the ground (allegedly community members and nurses in the clinics and hospitals where the problematic births take place) inform Nonxuba when there is a case of medical negligence. The women who birth these babies with defects don’t know that they have a legitimate case against the state in such cases of birth defects. He swoops in, playing hero for a poor family that just believes they have been dealt a bad hand. He explains that it isn’t just ‘bad luck’, that in fact the state is at fault and they are protected by law and should be compensated. Eureka! These families believe at this point, firstly, there is nothing wrong with me/us, we as a family didn’t bring this upon ourselves. In a world of conspiracy, superstition, and witchcraft, these are plausible possibilities for a lot of African people, particularly in rural areas.

This is unexpected good news. Here comes a swanky lawyer to the villages with his fancy cars and clothes saying all the right things. They give him all the details needed to persue the case and when he inevitably wins on behalf of those children, in most cases he gives a tiny fraction if nothing at all of the millions he receives. Each case we had evidence of had been awarded at least R10 million rands. Depending on the severity of the child’s conditions, more money would be awarded. In one case, the Health Department paid out R21 million for a extremely ill and disabled child.

The mother told me that Nonxuba paid her R5 000 for her child, but never mentioned that the case had been finalised or how much he had actually pocketed. She teared up as I showed her the evidence, recalling a few times where she pleaded with Nonxuba to increase the R5 000 ‘allowance’, as it didn’t cover even half of her child’s needs, especially medical needs. His response was to say to her that she likes money too much. I cannot think of a more callous response. This is a man who had pocketed R21 million that did not belong to him, it wasn’t meant for him. The Health Department acknowledged erring and what it would cost that patient and rightfully awarded them compensation. The Department didn’t award it to be spent on a lavish lifestyle by an unethical lawyer.

Meanwhile, parents, in most cases mothers or grandparents who are none the wiser that their case has been won, let alone the monies paid to Nonxuba, continue to live in poverty. Their lived reality doesn’t change. Nonxuba capitalises on their vulnerability and disability.

A few of the children’s homes I visited were small huts, round small structures, with no tap water or electricity. I will never forget interviewing a grandmother who was the guardian of a 14-year-old boy living with cerebral palsy, but he was the size of a 12-month-old baby. Wrapped in a blanket covered in saliva on the only bed in the hut, the only place he will lay all day. He didn’t have a wheelchair and he is unable to walk or talk. As I sat there interviewing the grandmother in the middle of winter, freezing, even though I was dressed in layers of warm clothing, I noticed the grandmother wearing Crocs, open shoes, with no socks. Her feet were scabbed and grey from the cold, labour, and lack of comfort—evidence of a tough life. They barely had any food in their house, no money, yet Nonxuba had received a payment of R16 million for that one child from the Department of Health in the Eastern Cape. Of the R16 million, he had apparently over the years occasionally sent the odd grand or two if they called to say they’re really struggling. The man had R16 million that he was supposed to open a trust with for them and give them this money they desperately needed to look after that child for life. That child needs physiotherapy, extra medical care to get him to at least be able to use a wheelchair or enjoy some quality of life. He has been left to rot in front of his loved ones who also aren’t trained to take care of a child with extra special needs.

It is expensive to afford a child with that kind of extreme disability, even just a somewhat decent life, nevermind a good life. But Nonxuba the Robin Hood who steals from the poorest in society seemingly does not care. We have been covering this story for some time now and every effort made to get his side of the story was unsuccessful. We have the evidence that proves he received the money and the complaints by the Health Departments in the Eastern and Western Cape, requesting regulator, The Legal Practice Council, to investigate him. Yet he was allowed to continue.

Covering this kind of story is always difficult because it entails interviewing the victims who are living with the very harsh real life consequences of the theft in the midst of abject poverty. They live in remote rural areas, mostly in the Eastern Cape. Finding them is not only difficult, it takes a lot of time as they are spread out across villages in different parts of the province.

But the most difficult part is seeing and being with the victims, especially in a case of not only children, but children with severe disabilities. Children who are in some cases actually not children, but even close to adulthood. However, because of the dire symptoms of cerebral palsy, their growth has been stunted in every aspect; physically, emotionally, and, sadly, mentally. They cannot communicate, they cannot take care of themselves, they cannot live a fulfilled life in the best circumstances with the disease. Adding a dodgy lawyer to the equation who robs them is a level of evil I have not been able to adequately fathom.

The take of Robin Hood stealing from the rich to provide for the poor has glamourised theft, and that has some aspect of morality. But imagine a Robin Hood that steals from the poor? There are many, sadly. Nonxuba’s modus operandi of stealing from the poorest in society is despicable. These children in many cases need 24 hour medical care, a lifetime of physio, wheelchairs, special education, and, and, and… to take from them, is the pits.

Where was the regulator?

The legal field is one that is supposed to be based on ethics and law. That is why we have a regulator to ensure that those in the field uphold a moral conduct and standard that is acceptable. The Legal Practice Council is supposed to ensure that the legal fraternity is not tainted by unscrupulous lawyers, so that the majority of ethical lawyers are not clubbed with the likes that use the law to steal from their clients and enrich themselves. That is what any reputable industry has, a regulator to enforce law and required standards.

The LPC avoided interviews with us for months. We had repeated requests over the three times we ran three different investigative programmes on Nonxuba. I would think that as the regulator they would jump at the opportunity to condemn this man. They had a report dating as far back as 2019 conducted by their own auditors which found Nonxuba wanting.

The LPC sat on that report and didn’t even discipline Nonxuba. The Western Cape High Court also made a ruling that the LPC should investigate, again the LPC did nothing. It was only until August this year when the Constitutional Court ruled that Nonxuba should be suspended did the regulator actually regulate and suspend him. They claimed their hands were tied because he kept appealing. Be that as it may, the LPC had been made the curator of Nonxuba’s account and had access to the remaining money he had not yet moved or spent. According to our sources, there was just a little over R100 million left. The LPC sat on this money that those children desperately needed.

When we had our interview at their offices almost a month after the Constitutional Court ruling, no one at the LPC had bothered to see any one of those victims. Almost a month later, they were dragging their feet in getting those funds to the necessary channels that will disperse it to the children’s families. There was no sense of urgency, no sense of care or shame.

It is thanks to good lawyers like Armand du Plessis of Du Plessis Attorneys and Judge Desai that these children will have a shot to ever see this money. A heavyweight team of legal eagles have graciously taken the cases on pro bono after watching the stories on ‘Carte Blanche’. They have hit the ground running and if all goes well, those families may experience a more joyful Christmas and better life ahead.

Masa Kekana is a journalist and highly-acclaimed anchor of the international award-winning news show, ‘Carte Blanche’.

By Editor