15 Mar Journey to Jika Jika Tavern-Part 3
The Case of Dumisani Gwala
Just like the fictional town of Mevamhlope featured in Down at Jika Jika Tavern, the town of Mtubatuba is small, a little bit grubby, but overflowing with energy and life. It is the gateway to the town of St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a world heritage site. So it is fitting that the trial of Dumisani Gwala, alleged rhino poaching kingpin of Zululand, was to take place on the doorstep of a large conservation area.
Although the two court days I attended took place in 2018, Gwala was first arrested back in 2014 for the attempted murder of a police officer, but also for dealing in rhino horn. And for three years, he’d managed to frustrate and annoy the courts, conservationists and activists alike.
The Blood Rhino Blacklist
I had come to hear about the case when Jamie Joseph, of Saving the Wild, released her Blood Rhino Blacklist in October 2017. The list contained the names of magistrates and lawyers who made up an alleged KwaZulu-Natal syndicate. The syndicate is accused of taking bribes in rhino poaching cases in the province (amongst other corruption allegations), and effectively making it impossible to prosecute any of the alleged poachers.
Since Gwala’s first arrest in 2014, his trial had still not successfully been heard in court. With over 30 postponements, and nine lawyer changes, its not hard to understand why allegations of corruption in the judicial system have been made. And if you are so inclined, you can read the plethora of newspaper articles and blog posts by Jamie Joseph, to get a better understanding of how deep and wide this issue appears to go.
Back in October 2017, I contacted Jamie to ask if we could talk about her work but she’d already gone underground, in anticipation of the fall out that would ensue from releasing the Blood Rhino Blacklist. However, in early 2018 she sent me a message: the Dumisani Gwala case had been moved Mtubatuba Court and I was free to attend as a member of the public.
Dodging and diving
I must make it clear that by the time I attended this trial, I was a few drafts (and years) in on my novel. The plot had been set, and the character of the poaching boss was a real person in my mind, and on paper. Dumisani Gwala, and his rhino poaching exploits, in no way influenced the book or any of the characters involved with rhino poaching. I hoped that by attending the trial I would get a better sense of the type of person who might be actively involved in poaching. But mostly, I was curious. Up until that point, all my knowledge of rhino poachers had come from newspapers and academic articles. The highly acclaimed documentary Stroop – Journey into the Rhino War, and short film, Sides of a Horn, (both offering tremendous insight into poaching), had yet to be released. Sometimes a picture of a poacher might appear with the article, but in general, they were faceless individuals written about in the vaguest terms. No information on family, background, or the context of what had driven them to turn to poaching.
The first court date I attended was in May 2018. Being a complete court case newbie, I had no idea that I would have to sit through other cases before Gwala’s would begin. I assumed such a high profile case would get precedence. Instead, I sat on a very hard wooden bench in the tiny court room, which looked much like a converted classroom. The smell of industrial cleaning agents permeated the air, and dirty shoe and hand prints covered the wall separating those attending the trial, from those on trial.
The proceedings took place in both English and isiZulu, and by the end of the first case, the judge was showing signs of extreme annoyance. She had to keep asking the softly spoken detective to speak up. Additionally, he had a very unfortunate face for a lawyer; his mouth naturally curled up at the edges, which gave him a permanent jokers smirk. Eventually, it was Gwala’s case, and if there are medals for dodging and diving, Gwala should get one.
He is a master at diversion. I learnt that between 2014-2017, Gwala had been through three lawyers. Today was no different. When the judge asked Gwala what his intentions for the day were, he answered that the trial could not continue, as he needed a new lawyer. Apparently his current lawyer had decided it was too costly to travel the 50km distance between Empangeni and Mtubatuba to represent him.
The spike in irritation and frustration in the room was palpable. For the State, another postponement meant that the quality of evidence might be furthered weakened, with the chances that state witnesses might ‘disappear’ or unexpectedly ‘die’. However, without a lawyer to defend him, the case could not continue. The judge agreed to give Gwala one month to organise a new lawyer, and if this was not possible, he would could represent himself, or apply for a State lawyer.
We believe what we want to
Needless to say, the case did not take place in June, but rather in late November 2018. However, while Gwala had managed to secure a new lawyer, another curveball was waiting to be thrown.
Having learnt my lesson from the last court case, I chose to sit outside and wait for Gwala’s trial to be called. Gwala’s lawyer, and an unlikely group of supporters, congregated on the cement benches. After some initial concern that I was a reporter, or working for ‘the other side’, the assurance that I was just an interested anthropologist, seemed to placate everyone. And then the conversation flowed. They spoke quite freely about Gwala being ‘set up’ and Saving the Wild’s vendetta against him. As convinced as Jamie Joseph was that Gwala was guilty, this group was convinced of his innocence, most especially, his new lawyer, Marianna Nicholson.
When the case was finally called, it quite quickly came to light that Nicholson was a retired Advocate, and had no right to defend Gwala. But, because she was so certain of his innocence, and claimed her ‘soft heart’ would not allow her to leave him, she chose to take her chances.
At this disclosure, Gwala lost his latest lawyer, and asked for another postponement. He too had been led to believe Nicholson was the real deal, and a new court date for 12th December 2018 was set.
I would like to say that I was able to follow this trial, in person, to its conclusion, but I wasn’t. I eventually decided that the money and time wasted on traveling between Durban and Mtubatuba, only to observe non-related cases, wasn’t worth it.
In fact, as of today, Dumisani Gwala still hasn’t been convicted of the charges, or proven innocent.
If you’d like to read about Jamie Josephs first-hand experiences of dealing with Gwala and his team, please click here. And to read more generally about the work they do to protect wildlife, click here.
Down at Jika Jika Tavern