The Mystery Man in the Hottest Seat
The obscure attorney chosen to defend the sacked deputy president is intensely private. Suthentira Govender delves into his background
Michael Hulley is not a public figure. And that is how he
wanted it. But then former deputy president Jacob Zuma signed up as a
Suddenly, the relatively unknown criminal lawyer was catapulted into becoming a key player in what is certain to be one of the biggest trials in the history of South Africa.
As the allegations of corruption against Zuma mounted, Hulley’s name appeared in nearly every story printed about his famous client, his face was flashed all over national television and he could be heard on the radio making cautious remarks.
Wittingly or not, Hulley has stepped into the public domain and now everyone not least the legal fraternity wants to know who he is and where he comes from.
But Hulley refuses to acknowledge the spotlight that Zuma’s legal troubles have put him under.
Demystifying the man who jealously guards his privacy has proved difficult.
“I don’t think a profile is a very good idea,” said Hulley when approached for an interview.
“I’m just doing my job.”
Unlike others in his profession, Hulley is clearly not a lawyer who hankers after publicity.
But thanks to his high-profile client he has landed what will probably be the juiciest case of his life, one that many in and out of the legal world say will make or break his career.
With discredited journalist Ranjeni Munusamy and the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust putting as much spin as they can on the actions of the former deputy president, Hulley has been at the centre of a battle to keep comments and information about the cases within legal boundaries.
He is reluctantly polite to the media hounds, but keeps them at bay by offering a little information without giving anything away.
Hefty and thickset, with a receding hairline that gives him a resemblance to his client, Hulley also favours the conservative suits Zuma wears, although he seems to like loud ties.
Those close to him, including relatives, portray Hulley as highly respected in Durban’s coloured community of Wentworth.
In legal circles he is described as an introvert.
“He goes into court with a purpose, fulfils it and leaves,” says one lawyer.
In common to everyone who has something to say about Hulley is the hushed tones in which they speak and only on condition of anonymity.
Perhaps that is in deference to the man’s desire to be left alone, or perhaps it is out of fear of being dragged into an imbroglio that has already seen the downfall of South Africa’s second most important politician.
“Whether Hulley likes it or not he is now in the public domain because of his very high-profile client,” says the lawyer.
But just how Hulley netted Zuma as a client remains a mystery.
Some attribute it to his earlier life as an activist and others to Hulley’s capability as a lawyer.
Most other lawyers say that defending Zuma is unlikely to be perceived as a bad career move.
“This case is likely to give his career as an attorney a boost,” said one.
Another said: “Hulley, like any other attorney, has a legal obligation to do his work in an honourable way. The due process must be allowed to take place.”
Hulley shot to prominence after the Scorpions’ raid in August on Zuma’s homes and the premises of the politician’s other attorney, Julekha Mahomed. In a stinging attack on the Scorpions, Hulley called the raids a “fishing expedition” and challenged their legality.
He vehemently denied that a rape charge against his client existed until the last moment, when he issued a dignified backdown after it became clear that police were indeed investigating a rape charge.
And he was in the thick of things the dramatic morning Zuma was charged with rape.
Hulley was not at the Shaik trial representing Zuma’s interests. Another lawyer, Neil Tuchten, kept an eye on the proceedings.
But since then Hulley has made two court appearances in connection with the corruption charges Zuma faces, instructing advocates Kessie Naidu SC and Jerome Brauns.
There the normally restrained lawyer was seen grinning and shaking hands with colleagues.
Since Naidu has pulled out of the Zuma defence team, it is still anyone’s guess who will represent the former deputy president at his trials.
Some legal minds say Hulley’s role in the Zuma trials is likely to be minimal, with the fancy footwork in court being left to senior counsel.
But whatever Hulley’s role maybe, his name is sure to be recorded in the history books.
He was born more than 40 years ago to a disciplinarian father, Archie, in Wentworth.
He attended St Augustine’s Primary School in Greyville and Park Hill Secondary in Greenwood Park.
Under the influence of a highly politicised father, Hulley became embroiled in politics during his youth.
He often walked the streets of Wentworth with his older brother Anthony, distributing pamphlets for the Austerville Action Committee.
After school Hulley studied law at the University of Durban-Westville and worked at a few law firms before setting up his own practice, Hulley and Associates, a few years ago.
He has handled a number of cases, particularly those dealing with the taxi violence in the province.
Mention his name to Derrick McBride, a community activist and father of Ekurhuleni Metro Police boss Robert McBride, and his voice crackles with pride.
The McBrides, whose roots are in Wentworth, share a bond with the Hulleys that dates back to the years they had to spend standing together as their children became involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
“That youngster had such great potential ... I always knew he was going to be a success,” says McBride.
“For a person coming from Wentworth, anybody who does well is an exceptional person.
“I am very, very proud of him.”
Hulley is credited in Wentworth with being one of the key activists who set up successful youth organisations, some of them linked to the United Democratic Front and the ANC Youth League.
But Hulley also has his detractors.
A senior Durban lawyer, who refused to be named, believes Hulley is in over his head when it comes to the Zuma saga.
“He has never been involved in any high-profile case. He has never worked with a team of advocates like that, that has been put together for Mr Zuma.
“He’s got no track record of doing cases of any significance.
“He’s got a lot to learn in the limited time available to him. Hulley has actually got to be the anchor in a very important team.”
When not fighting battles in the courtroom, Hulley unwinds by playing golf or tennis.
He lives with his wife Odette and their children Laura and Luke in Durban North.
He also devotes time to his parish and the St Vincent De Paul Society.
“Archie [Hulley’s father] was a man who always believed in fairness, justice and truth,” says McBride. “These are traits that he passed on to his children, Michael in particular.”
Wentworth environmental activist Desmond D’Sa says Hulley has never turned his back on his community or forgotten his roots.
“Whenever we needed legal assistance Michael’s doors have always been open to us. Michael is a sound, good person.
“He has done cases for next to nothing. I know of many people from the community who have gone to Michael for help and he never turned them away.
“He is one of the few guys who can hold his head up high, coming out of this community as a lawyer.”
With acknowledgements to Suthentira Govender and Sunday Times.