Justice & constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN
Justice & constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN

While the names Gupta and Zuma, as well as public entities such as Transnet, Eskom and SAA, are part of the lexicon of alleged corruption in SA, few South Africans would add the master’s offices of the high court to the list.

Unless you have had cause to interact with one of these, you might not even know they exist, though they deliver vital services to the public in the administration of deceased estates, liquidations, the administration of the Guardian’s Fund (which protects the rights of minors or persons declared incapable of managing their finances), and the registration and supervision of trusts.

In the case of a death with property and or a will a deceased estate arises and the master’s office in the area would be responsible for the administration of that estate. Quite a big deal if you are a dependant needing finance while an estate is being wound up. Some of them take years and the deceased person’s assets cannot be accessed until the matter has been processed by the masters’ office.

Master’s offices play too crucial a role in our society for their integrity to be anything other than bulletproof.

There are 15 master’s offices in the country, one for each division of the high court, and they have in recent years never been far from controversy. But it still came as a surprise when justice & constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola took the unusual step of ordering that all 15 offices be closed for a day so that the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) could conduct raids to continue its investigation of corruption.

It is somewhat unusual to announce a surprise raid because that gives the bad guys the time to go on the run or to hide the evidence of their nefarious deeds. So, while the SIU has said that computers and documents were seized during the closures, it makes better sense for a surprise raid to be a surprise.

While laudable, Lamola’s clear desire to prevent fruitless trips by members of the public to master’s offices that are closed creates the question of how much evidence was lost in the more than 24 hours of warning given.

Some legal and human rights activists who defend the poor have described the master’s offices as breeding grounds for criminals to feed on the wealth of deceased estates.

Particularly vulnerable are the widows and widowers because apparently it is, common practice among commercial banks holding wills to have themselves appointed executors instead of the spouse. It is a clear conflict of interest as the banks may take decisions that are not necessarily in the interest of the surviving spouse, and if it is in the purview of a malfunctioning master’s office, it is likely to go unchecked.

Also vulnerable are the minors or heirs whose inheritances and trust money are being administered by the Guardian’s Fund. The amounts of money are not insignificant, with the fund having assets worth almost R14bn due to a backlog of unclaimed money. The backlog is said to be about 7,000 cases.

It should be remembered that about two years ago the master’s office in Pretoria lost about 45,000 files when the roof of a storage facility blew off. The loss of documents, whether through illegal intent or plain carelessness, has been a festering sore in the justice department for ages and the SIU investigation comes not a moment too soon.

Lamola’s actions are to be welcomed even if the element of surprise was a little compromised. Master’s offices play too crucial a role in our society for their integrity to be anything other than bulletproof. That they are not is a tragedy and all efforts to sort them out are a blessing.

Let us hope and pray that this time criminal charges will be the outcome rather than a report gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.