ANALYSIS: Batohi and Cronje take charge of the NPA and they're playing open cards
For all its opaque tendencies and lack of transparency over the past decade, there have been a surprising number of press conferences hosted by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) at the Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge building in Silverton.
It was here in the bowels of the former SABC Pretoria headquarters, that Mokotedi Mpshe announced he was withdrawing charges against Jacob Zuma, clearing the path for an apocalyptically destructive presidency. In the auditorium with its sculpted grey wall and auditorium style seating, I have watched and listened to various national directors of public prosecutions introducing themselves and outlining their grand strategies for the organisation.
From the little known KwaZulu-Natal attorney Mxolisi Nxasana's brief sojourn to that awkward moment when Shaun Abrahams furrowed his eyebrow and told the nation that the time of disrespecting the NPA was over! There was also that occasion when Menzi Simelane told prosecutors, in this building, that he was here to carry out the mandate of the ruling party. Hardly a prosecuting authority operating with independence.
I spent weeks here listening to the nauseating testimony during Glynnis Breytenbach's disciplinary inquiry, when we first realised how the organisation was captured and being ripped apart for political gain. The reign of Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi at VGM was devastating, severing the relationship with the public and with other institutions in the criminal justice system.
Today was different.
For the first time in years, it felt like this crucial institution was back. The dynamic duo of national director Shamila Batohi and the new head of the investigating directorate Hermione Cronje, faced the media and the nation and told us everything we needed to hear. They rolled out phrases like the "relentless pursuit of justice", "the tremendous hunger and appetite for justice", "respect for the rule of law will prevail" and acknowledging that "the country is crying out for effective prosecutions".
Despite their diminutive statures, their presence was large and their message was emphatic: We are here to sort out this horrendous mess, we will go after the corrupt regardless of their political influence and we will get back the public confidence. At the table alongside the women sat two big men – national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole and head of the Hawks, General Godfrey Lebeya, but there was no doubting who was calling the shots here.
Batohi and Cronje have come in with a good dose of reality and transparency, playing open cards about just how bad the situation is at the NPA. They took us into their confidence and were honest about the rot, admitting it was far worse than they imagined it was when they were on the outside. But they also have "blue sky" thinking – they talked of becoming an innovation hub, drawing in skills and expertise from international experts and looking to the private sector for partnerships.
They have asked for time, patience and trust. Cronje joked that they are not superheroes and their capes were not hidden in the back of the auditorium. There is no magic wand. "But we do have all of you, South Africans. I'm keen and committed and I'm thrilled to be back in the public sector, fighting the good fight," she said.
It's a fine balancing act for this leadership team now. They know that the public is clamouring for action and that action looks like politicians in the dock. But they also know that they cannot regain public trust and confidence by rushing half-baked cases to court. "When you go after the king you have to make sure you kill him," Batohi told us, somewhat ominously. "We will be attacked. We have to have watertight cases. Solid cases. But we have to demonstrate the wheels of justice are turning."
The new leadership of the NPA looks and feels like "Thuma Mina" in action. Two ex-NPA members who left the haemorrhaging organisation as it bled out most of its best, have given up cushy jobs in the private sector to return and to lead the rebuild. Cronje said they "have been inundated with Thuma Mina offers of assistance from institutions," an indication that faith and confidence in their leadership is growing.
At the end of the press conference, we felt a little punch drunk from the experience. It was all a bit euphoric. "It's like the adults are back in charge," remarked my colleague. I said as much to Batohi and Cronje as we chatted next to the stage, reminding them that we in the media have been along on the ride for the turbulent journey of the NPA over the years.
While I for one am swept up in the optimism of this moment and the prospect of a prosecuting authority that has integrity and competency, it would have been remiss of me not to also issue a reminder to Batohi: We will be watching and if you make mistakes, we will write about it. The patriot in me hopes that doesn't happen, for the sake of justice, for the rule of law and for the country.