Counsel at the centre of Namibia’s growing Fishrot row, South African advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, is no stranger to the elite of that country’s ruling Swapo party, and has appeared for them on several occasions. This time, however, he was not given the usual benign treatment accorded legal representatives.

Last Wednesday, intended to be a normal day in the high court, turned out to be anything but: Namibia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) served a summons on him – according to local media it was handed to him during a hearing in the Windhoek high court and he was given just an hour to respond.

The ACC’s query concerns a payment of N$50 000 made to Ngcukaitobi by the Namibian national fishing corporation, Fishcor, in 2018. Fishcor is at the centre of a scandal in which high-level Namibians from top government ministers down are alleged to have taken bribes to allow special access to Namibian fishing waters by vessels from Iceland. Among the suspects now in prison pending further investigations are the former minister of fisheries and marine resources, Bernhard Esau, and the former minister of justice, Sacky Shanghala.

News of the summons served on counsel for the Fishrot six spread quickly. Among others, the SADC Lawyers Association responded with indigation and issued a statement condemning the ‘unduly forceful and summary procedures’ used against Ngcukaitobi by Namibia’s ACC.

SADC-LA spoke of its deep concern about the way he had been treated, saying the incident had the potential ‘to erode the rule of law and compromise the fair administration of justice’ in Namibia.

Stressing that it supported the fight against corruption, the organisation said it was crucial, however, that independent commissions should work within the framework of the law.

‘The facts of the matter are that the Namibian ACC deployed summary procedure in issuance of summons and immediate demand for a response ….. Of greater concern … is that the summons was issued whilst he was in court, during a hearing in which he was representing the accused persons. The summons was issued at 1pm and response was demanded by 2pm. This is extraordinary and can only be viewed as an attempt to intimidate and prevent Ngcukaitobi from representing the six accused ….’

The summons suggests that he had taken a payment from Fishcor and the result could have been an immediate conflict of interest that would bar him from representing the six accused. ‘Seeking to link (him) to the activities of his client is not acceptable and will make it very difficult for lawyers within and from outside Namibia to take up sensitive cases (such as this).’

‘Lawyers must be allowed to execute their work without fear of intimidation and threats’.

The SADC-LA statement further pointed to the ‘curious history of recent intimidation of lawyers in the same jurisdiction’ and said it would be engaging with the ACC, the government of Namibia and the local law society on the matter.

The incident also sparked hot debate on Twitter, with political disrupter Julius Malema, who is the leader of SA’s Economic Freedom Fighters political party, taking on Namibian challengers over the ACC’s actions.

Then came a statement by Namibia’s cabinet secretary, George Simataa, who apologised to Ngcukaitobi ‘on behalf of the government … for the inconvenience this matter may have caused to him.’ According to Simataa the funds were paid to Ngcukaitobi to attend a conference at which he had been invited to be an official speaker.

That explanation and apology were not well received by the ACC. Officials, who appeared to believe the cabinet was trying to undermine the commission, said the explanation should have been sent to the ACC, and not made public by way of an official statement and apology.

The week before the Ngcukaitobi incident, the ACC was strongly censured by high court judge Thomas Masuku. The judge had been asked to consider the validity of search and seizure warrants issued against the six suspects. Though the judge upheld the validity of the warrants, he criticised the ACC's handling of certain documents seized during the search. One of the six disputed whether the ACC officials could take certain documents from him in their search, saying they were 'privileged'. But the ACC simply denied this was so, presumably on the basis of having read them anyway - this despite the law that sets out how documents, claimed to be 'privileged', are to be handled. The law clearly stipulates that a judge, not the ACC, is to decide the status of contested documents. The judge also expressed reservations about certain items taken by the ACC during the searches and that appeared, at first sight, not to relate to the issues the ACC was investigating.

Ngcukaitobi is not the first South African lawyer appearing for the Fishrot accused to run into difficulties. During November, two other prominent South African advocates found themselves in trouble. Like Ngcukaitobi, they were representing the accused in the Fishrot scandal. Counsel had been expected to apply for bail on behalf of the six accused that day, but the morning the bail application would have been brought, the two lawyers were arrested because they did not have work permits for Namibia.

Namibia is notorious for the bureaucratic difficulties it throws up for outsiders. In the case of the legal team from South Africa, Mike Hellens and Dawie Joubert, they were held in police cells and had to pay admission of guilt fines.