High court frees Sizani and overturns fraud ruling

Portia 'Pankie' Sizani's fraud conviction has been set aside by the high court in Makhanda.
Portia 'Pankie' Sizani's fraud conviction has been set aside by the high court in Makhanda.
Image: EUGENE COETZEE

Alleged “ghost teacher” fraudster Portia “Panky” Sizani, wife of SA ambassador to Germany Stone Sizani, has been freed by the high court in Makhanda, following a review of her 2019 magistrate’s court conviction.

Sizani’s “long and tortured” trial, which has run “in fits and starts” since December 2012, may now have to restart before a different magistrate after the high court overturned the trial magistrate’s “gross technical error” in deciding to close Sizani’s defence case.

The high court also found Sizani was prevented from accessing potentially material evidence — a clear failure of justice.

The two judges in Makhanda held that their intervention in an ongoing criminal trial in the lower court, while unusual, was essential to avoid an injustice which could not be corrected later.

The department’s early childhood development (ECD) district co-ordinator during 2009 and 2010, Sizani was accused of pocketing more than R1.2m in funds intended for teachers.

The state alleged she had created ghost teachers and pocketed their salaries after signing off at least 16 “assumption of duty” forms for teachers to take up positions at various schools in and around Port Elizabeth.

She was convicted on March 29 2019 in the PE commercial crimes court on 15 counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering.

However, on Tuesday, two high court judges found that magistrate Mputhumi Mpofu committed a “gross technical irregularity” when he ordered Sizani’s defence closed, after her counsel declared a stalemate in proceedings.

Mpofu had done so of his own volition and without either the state or the defence counsel formally applying for the order.

Judges Murray Lowe and Sunil Rugunanan found that the law on which Mpofu relied for his order required the existence of special circumstances and the failure of all other attempts to speed up proceedings.

The judges held that their failure to immediately intervene in a lower court trial which was still under way could result in “a grave injustice” which could not be corrected after Sizani’s sentencing through a review application or on appeal to a higher court.

Sizani’s trial was enrolled in December 2012 but only started before Mpofu two years later. The state closed its case in February 2016, and the court dismissed an application for the accused’s discharge in July that year.

Another two years passed before the defence case started, with Sizani insisting that she needed access to 16 ECD “practitioner” curriculum vitaes (CVs), which ought to have been introduced into evidence by the state but which were allegedly withheld to prejudice her defence.

When the state said none of the 16 files contained CVs, Sizani’s counsel declared a stalemate and invited Mpofu to exercise his discretion in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act to declare the defence case closed.

The judges left open the possibility of the National Prosecuting Authority reinstituting charges against Sizani, but said if they re-arraigned her, the trial must take place before a different regional court magistrate.

Sizani was out on bail following her conviction.

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