Helen Zille. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Helen Zille. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

Fifteen years after his relationship with a fugitive German billionaire cost him his reputation‚ Gerald Morkel’s transgressions look pretty tame.

In the light of what has happened since — chiefly state capture — the friendship between fraudster Jürgen Harksen and Morkel‚ who died on Tuesday at the age of 76‚ appears relatively harmless.

The Desai Commission‚ which investigated the former Western Cape premier and Cape Town mayor‚ said in December 2002 that Morkel acted improperly‚ if not dishonestly‚ in seeking personal donations under false pretences.

Judge Siraj Desai also said it was likely that the DA took money from Harksen‚ who was extradited to Germany after nine years living the high life in Cape Town.

Quoting the writer Joseph Conrad‚ Desai’s report said it had found that the goings-on in the Western Cape government led by Morkel "seemed to lead into an immense heart of darkness".

Morkel’s death coincides with the tribulations of one of his DA successors as mayor‚ Patricia de Lille‚ who is said to have ordered a cover-up of alleged corruption and to have lost the confidence of the DA caucus. She will know within days whether she will have to follow Morkel’s footsteps out of the mayoral suite at the civic centre.

The Harksen affair might have tarnished Morkel’s reputation but current premier Helen Zille was generous in her praise for him on Wednesday‚ saying he "played a significant role in the development of democracy in SA’s early years".

A statement by Zille’s spokesperson‚ Michael Mpofu‚ said: "Gerald was elected premier in 1999‚ and headed the first coalition government in democratic SA — pioneering a form of government that is now established throughout SA.

"In his capacity as DA leader in the Western Cape‚ he was on the front line of some of the party’s toughest survival struggles when many of his colleagues defected‚ first to the New National Party (NNP) and then to the ANC. History has vindicated his foresight in the decisions he took during that most difficult time."

Morkel entered politics in support of an independent candidate in the apartheid-era Coloured Representative Council. "I suppose the political bug bites in a family like ours. Even my grandfather was involved in politics in the old days‚ in Beaufort West. I suppose it runs in the blood‚" he said in 2001.

When the tricameral Parliament was created in 1984‚ he was elected on a Labour Party ticket to the coloureds-only House of Representatives. With a number of his colleagues‚ he defected to the National Party in the run-up to the 1994 general elections.

In 1998‚ he was chosen as the National Party’s Western Cape leader and took office as premier in May‚ succeeding Hernus Kriel.

In the 1999 election‚ no party obtained a majority in the Western Cape. The Nats‚ reinvented as the NNP, formed a coalition with the smaller Democratic Party‚ with Morkel remaining as premier. In 2000‚ plans began to prepare an amalgamation of the two parties under the name Democratic Alliance.

Morkel stayed loyal to the DA in 2001 when the NNP leadership pulled out of the arrangement and threw in its lot with the ANC. "It was a matter of principle that I didn’t go to the ANC‚" he said.

He attempted to turn the majority of the NNP against the deal with the ANC‚ and when this failed he was forced to resign as premier.

Morkel was elected as mayor of Cape Town in 2001. He remained in office for less than a year until the DA was ousted from power by an ANC-NNP coalition following the floor-crossing period in October 2002.

Morkel continued for a while as Western Cape provincial leader of the DA‚ but eventually stepped down due to his links to Harksen. He stayed on as a councillor for Steenberg until 2011.

An editorial comment in the Sunday Times after Desai issued his report said the commission was "right to find that all was not well in then-premier Gerald Morkel’s administration".

It said Desai had found Morkel’s director-general‚ Niel Barnard‚ "presided over a government in which fear and intrigue stalked the corridors of the administration".

Naming Morkel "mampara of the week" in the same edition‚ the Sunday Times said: "Time was when Gerald Morkel ruled supreme in the Western Cape. Then the cookie crumbled and he had to give up the premiership for the lesser post of mayor of Cape Town. Then the cookie crumbled some more and he gave that up‚ remaining as provincial party chairman. Then the cookie ... you get the point. This week he left all official posts to take up his new position as Mampara of the Week.

"Of course‚ Morkel is not one to admit to wrongdoing‚ even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he took money for the DA from a strange man in lederhosen. On the contrary‚ said he like a true Mampara‚ the Desai Commission had vindicated him."

Harksen arrived in SA in 1993 within days of a warrant for his arrest being issued in Hamburg. By the time he was extradited nine years later‚ he left behind "a trail of bruised reputations in political‚ legal and business circles" the Sunday Times reported.

It said Morkel was just one of the victims of a man who had ransacked German investment schemes between 1987 and 1993. In SA‚ he allegedly ran scams that promised high returns for investment in infrastructural developments‚ including an airport in Denmark.

Finding refuge in the Cape‚ the Harksens quickly became prominent members of Cape Town’s party circuit‚ with Jürgen often seen at cocktail parties in his trademark Hugo Boss suits‚ or cruising Camps Bay boulevard in his Mercedes-Benz sports car.

They celebrated the high point of their social life in Cape Town in March 2000‚ when Jeanette Harksen opened a fashion boutique in Burg Street. Models‚ lawyers and businesspeople were invited to the lavish opening party.

The Harksens’ last home was in Belair Drive‚ Constantia‚ where Jürgen and Jeanette lived with their three sons.

Harksen’s final nights in Cape Town were spent in a bed in Goodwood Prison’s hospital wing‚ where he was receiving psychiatric counselling.

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