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Prison sentence for theft, fraud a tragic end for antiapartheid activist

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cape Town, South Africa

The six-year jail sentence for theft and fraud handed down to prominent South African antiapartheid cleric Allan Boesak may have reassured some foreign donors, but it has come too late for many church and community projects relying on foreign aid.

A number of donors, alarmed at the corruption and lax accounting standards revealed by the Boesak affair, have withdrawn their contributions from projects of South African nongovernmental organizations. Others have significantly cut their funding, and the activities of nongovernmental organizations have been severely curtailed as a result.

Boesak, former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, was sentenced on March 24 after a lengthy trial in the Cape Town High Court. Charged with 27 counts of fraud and theft, he was eventually convicted on four charges involving 1.3 million rand, or the equivalent of approximately $209,000. The charges included stealing 259,161 rand ($41,700) of the 682,000 rand ($110,000) donated by singer Paul Simon in 1988 for underprivileged children, and fraud for not disclosing to the trustees of the Children’s Fund the full amount Simon had donated.

In his judgment, Judge John Foxcroft spoke of Boesak having used the funds to pay for the “lavish lifestyle” of his second wife, a TV producer, whose debts he repaid with some of the money and for whom he purchased a fully equipped studio.

Despite the pleas of Archbishop Desmond Tutu for a non-custodial sentence, the judge sentenced Boesak to six years in jail. He also turned down Boesak’s request for permission to appeal.

Boesak, out on bail, now has 21 days to petition the chief justice directly for permission to appeal his conviction and sentence in the Supreme Court of Appeals.

The case has far wider ramifications than most other trials involving white-collar crime.

The ruling African National Congress had promised Boesak an ambassadorship to Geneva -- withdrawn once foreign funders began to raise difficult questions that eventually prompted the Office for Serious Economic Offences to investigate and, ultimately, charge him.

The ANC had hoped Boesak would deliver the colored or mixed race vote to the party, particularly in the Western Cape, one of just two provinces not held by the ANC, and the one in which the colored vote could prove crucial. Having come from this community, Boesak was viewed as the ideal figure to allay fears that the ANC government would promote only African interests.

With Boesak out of the running, the ANC is still trying to find a suitable replacement to draw the colored vote in the province before the June elections, the first since the 1994 transformation to democracy.

His conviction and sentence revived complaints that President Nelson Mandela, officials of the office of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Minister of Justice Dullar Omar had all initially reacted to the prosecution with remarks and behavior that effectively dismissed the validity of the charges and bordered on contempt of court.

Now they are being challenged by opposition politicians to explain their actions, a challenge that goes to the heart of the question of whether the present government respects the courts. Consequently, officials have stated their respect for due process but said old ties of gratitude to Boesak for his past contributions meant they could not desert him when he was charged.

ANC leaders and many other commentators have expressed their discomfort with the fact that someone who was a hero of the antiapartheid struggle will go to jail over money, when many self-confessed multi-murderers who killed opponents of the former racist government go free because of the amnesty deal set up as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

They are, however, in a difficult position since the analogy works at the level of emotion, not law: the amnesty granted to perpetrators of human rights violations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the result of legislation agreed to by all parties. It did not include amnesty for purely economic crimes. Moreover, the government is plagued by corruption and has promised to take strong action to root it out. It is therefore risky for senior party officials to criticize the court for its finding in the Boesak trial.

The case has also focused attention on “struggle bookkeeping,” the cynical description for accounting practices, common under apartheid, intended to disguise the real purpose for which money was used. For example, donors might give an organization money to be used for administrative purposes, but it would in fact be used to organize funerals of activists killed by the police, to print pamphlets related to the funeral or to bus mourners to the service -- activities for which they could not raise money openly.

Some donors were aware that funds were used “flexibly” but did nothing since they sympathized with the difficult situation in which organizations found themselves.

The court found that in some cases Boesak’s failure to keep scrupulous records of how funds were used could be explained by the need for secrecy during the years when his organization, the Foundation for Peace and Justice, was closely monitored and harassed by the security police.

But this did not explain the theft and fraud for which he was convicted. The judge ruled he had “wrongfully and unlawfully” taken money intended for the children of South Africa to finance the flashy cars and expensive home that came to form part of his lifestyle.

The case also shows the tenuous credibility of the courts, still largely dominated by white, male judges. Many black people, angered that a “hero of the antiapartheid struggle” has been sent to jail, have impugned Judge Foxcroft as a “racist,” a label that neither his past record nor his conduct of this case bears out.

The need to transform the courts more speedily with the appointment of increased numbers of black and women judges is one of the many important issues raised by the trial of Allan Boesak, a case widely viewed as a tragic end to what had appeared to be a career set to reach the very top.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999