In April 2022 the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) of South Africa appointed an internal Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate complaints of financial irregularities at the council brought to its attention by a member of its general majlis. MAHMOOD SANGLAY reports on these developments and provides an analysis of the COI report.
THE Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) of South Africa sustained the most irreparable damage to its reputation since the Orion ‘pork-certified-as-halaal’ scandal in 2012. The council’s internal commission of inquiry (COI) made eight devastating findings of ‘gross financial management and control failures’ of the organisation in the 2020-2021 financial year.
These include unauthorised expenditure and the ‘manufacture’ of fraudulent invoices. The latter finding is singled out by the commission as ‘a deliberate act of deception’. The 22-page report was released in June 2022, and leaked six months later.
However, these findings may point to even deeper financial irregularities at the MJC. Yet the executive summary of the COI report prefaces its list of findings with the observation that there had been ‘no prima facie evidence of theft or personal enrichment’.
According to an independent forensic analyst and a legal expert, it is inappropriate to explicitly foreground a non-finding of prima facie evidence in this case. The experts agree that a reasonable inference of theft and self-enrichment could be presumed. This is in light of the serious nature of the financial irregularities, the clear evidence of attempts to conceal the true beneficiaries of MJC funds and the refusal of the treasurer to comply with directives to make relevant disclosures.
Five months after the release of the report there was still no decisive disciplinary process in place. The imaarah’s mandate was to institute disciplinary proceedings based on the findings of the report.
A sense of urgency among members of the general majlis prompted a special meeting in November 2022, as provided for in the MJC constitution. The meeting passed a motion of no confidence in the exco, with the support of 25 majlis signatories, as per a constitutional requirement. However, this motion did not go unchallenged.
Early in December 2022, the president of the MJC intervened with correspondence from his legal counsel and disrupted plans to proceed with an early election. However, this does not prevent the imaarah from proceeding with the disciplinary process currently underway.
The sources add that new evidence brought before the imaarah, in a second report tabled in January 2023, led to the suspension of the treasurer. Following this disciplinary action, the MJC secretary general and the administrator of the MJC resigned in January.
COI report questioned
The president of the MJC questioned the credibility of the COI report but raised no objection when the majlis called for the appointment of the COI, according to a majlis member. The COI told Muslim Views that implicated members in the report were shown its ‘full findings’, that they were given a full right of reply and that none of the findings were ever challenged.
Regarding the credibility of the COI, even as an internal mechanism, the four commissioners appear not to recognise the inherent conflict of interest in their dual roles at the MJC and on the commission. Two commissioners serve on the MJC exco, one is the MJC mufti, and the COI chair is a member of the MJC Halaal Trust board.
It is a fair and reasonable expectation that the role of the COI is limited to its stated mandate and its defined scope of inquiry. However, given the developments since the COI report was released, it is increasingly clear that these limitations have produced a report containing a very narrow, albeit alarming, set of revelations.
The report lacks depth in some key respects. A case in point is the role of the auditor, who is ethically bound to report materially misstated financials to the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors and to publicly withdraw the 2021 financials.
The report records two interviews with the auditor but provides no indication whether the auditor had been questioned on their competence and obligation of due care. The first two findings of the COI report, which reveal an ‘improper use of funding’, should have been noted by the auditor. Yet the auditor appears to have overlooked this irregularity, and the COI report is silent on this oversight. Moreover, the COI offers no explanation why it recommends the appointment of a new auditor.
Two other areas of inquiry also remain unanswered due to the absence of a full financial and process control audit. The first relates to the 38 transactions investigated by the COI. Of these, 25 transactions appear to be for the benefit of deserving imams, and some reflect actual beneficiary names. Muslim Views asked the COI to confirm whether a given list of transactions, totalling R460 900, had verifiable beneficiaries.
The second inquiry relates to a reimbursement schedule in the COI report in the amount of R445 959. The treasurer allegedly paid the MJC’s expenses from his personal banking account, and then reimbursed himself by paying the funds from the MJC’s account back into his personal account.
Did the COI verify the reimbursements by obtaining the original and authenticated personal banking account statements of the treasurer? The COI did not respond to any of these questions.
Now that the treasurer has been suspended, another question arises: Is his suspension in any way related to irregularities in the reimbursement schedule supplied to the COI?
Many others implicated
A source close to the MJC told Muslim Views the president is not obliged to step down because he has not been formally charged, nor has he been furnished with any evidence of wrongdoing.
The COI report, says the source, simply contains allegations. The source added that many others will be implicated if all the facts about how the MJC operated over the past forty years are fully disclosed.
The present disciplinary process under the auspices of the imaarah involves external legal professionals, and is headed by one of them. It is noteworthy, according to sources, that the chair of the COI, who is also a career politician, had been advocating for an internal legal process. This may result in criminal charges against the three most prominent individuals implicated in the report, namely the president, his first deputy and the treasurer.
It is not clear when the internal disciplinary process of the imaarah will be concluded. Indications are that the process is independent. This is a promising departure from commissions and panels appointed by the MJC over the years.
In almost every instance, the recommendations were never implemented. Cases in point are the Independent Halaal Review Panel Report in 2012 and the Nomination Committee Report for the Independent Advisory Panel of the MJC in 2015.
The findings of the COI and the subsequent developments have been very damaging to the MJC’s reputation, and trust in the leadership of the organisation has been seriously eroded. A credible and transparent process to restore trust and rebuild the reputation of the MJC must involve some level of public participation.
In the interim, almost everything hinges on the credibility and outcome of the disciplinary process. It remains highly anticipated and a matter of great public interest.
- Featured image: The members of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Commission of Inquiry are, from left, Shaikh Shahid Esau, Moulana Abdurraghmaan Khan, Shaikh Muhammad West and Moulana Khalil Hendricks. (Photos SUPPLIED)
This article was first published in the February 17, 2023 print edition of Muslim Views.