National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise. Picture: TSHEKO KABASIA
National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise. Picture: TSHEKO KABASIA

Lobby group AfriForum insists that National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise must attend the animal abuse court case against her on Tuesday — despite the government’s recently enacted  restriction of movement during the Covid-19 shutdown.

The case against the speaker is scheduled to be heard at the Potchefstroom regional court in North West, which means she will have to cross provincial lines to attend it.

Modise — who had a suspended warrant of arrest issued against her after failing to appear in court last week — has now launched an urgent application in the Pretoria high court to have her trial either struck from the roll (meaning it can re-enrolled later) or postponed indefinitely.

Her advocate, Dali Mpofu, is expected to argue her case on Monday at 2pm. He is relying not only on the shutdown regulations, but also on justice minister Ronald Lamola’s directives that “all criminal cases where accused people are incarcerated shall not be put on the court roll” to justify her stance.

Speaking earlier this weekend, AfriForum’s Ernst Roets indicated that his organisation was “very likely” to oppose any urgent bid by Modise to postpone her trial. Roets maintained that, while AfriForum respected government’s shutdown regulations, the organisation was of the view that Modise was “using the lockdown as an excuse” to not attend the trial.

“This current dilemma is completely of her [Modise’s] own doing,” Roets said, after pointing out that Modise’s lawyer had asked that the case against her be postponed until Tuesday, a day after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that a shutdown would be implemented.

The regulations governing the shutdown, prohibiting travel between provinces, were however only gazetted days later.

Letters obtained by Business Day show that Modise’s urgent court bid follows a standoff between Modise’s lawyers and well-known former state advocate Gerrie Nel, who is leading AfriForum’s private prosecution against Modise on behalf of the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA).

Modise faces charges linked to the discovery of the carcasses of more than 50 pigs and other animals on her farm in Modderfontein, in the North West province, in 2014. At the time, media reports claimed the starving pigs had eaten each other.

Modise’s lawyers sent Nel a letter on March 27 to indicate that they would seek direction from the court, in light of the state shutdown regulations and Lamola’s directives, as to whether her trial would proceed.

Nel responded a day later, pointing out that Modise’s lawyer had promised that she would appear at court on Tuesday “to explain her non-appearance”. Modise’s lawyers earlier told the court that she was unable to appear because she was meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“We were reluctant but amenable to a stay of the warrant only,” said Nel.

“All parties, inclusive of regional court magistrate ... agreed to reconvene on March 31  2020 in the interest of availing your client an opportunity to provide reasons why her non-appearance should not be viewed as contempt of court as well as arranging a trial date. We respectfully submit that your letter is opportunistic as the regulations clearly refer to matters where the accused are not contemptuous of the criminal proceedings they find themselves in.

“We support government’s endeavours to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the Covid-19 virus and appreciate the difficulties that all parties will have to endure when presenting themselves at court. It is perhaps more apt to consider that failure to appear may cause the arrest of your client.”

Stressing that an arrest warrant had been issued against Modise and then suspended, Nel added that “her failure to appear may have dire consequences for her”.

“We have made it clear and now do so again, that we are obliged to appear in court on 31 March 2020. The appearance of all parties is essential to ensure that this matter is heard soonest.”

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