ANALYSIS: Why Ramaphosa must move on Abrahams, regardless of what the court says
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was supposed to have been one of democratic South Africa’s safeguards against power abuse and injustice. Following decades during which the state apparatus, including prosecutors, were employed to enforce the apartheid government’s policies and laws, the NPA was designed to be independent from government to ensure that constitutional supremacy is upheld.
But the NPA has been in the wars and in the middle of every single political skirmish since the turn of the century when then national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), Bulelani Ngcuka, decided not to prosecute deputy president Jacob Zuma on charges of corruption, money-laundering and fraud, even though he had "prima facie" evidence of wrongdoing. That plunged the NPA, an organisation consisting of thousands of hard working officials across the length and breadth of the country, headlong into the political maelstrom created by Zuma’s expansive and dogged efforts to stay out of jail.
The institution has been unable to extricate itself from ANC politics, with boardroom knife fights and political interference by the governing party’s deployees a feature of the last 15 years. It has had a dramatic impact on the effectiveness and credibility of the NPA, with conviction rates dropping, experienced prosecutors leaving and political decisions often overriding legal imperatives. The constitutional principle of an independent prosecuting body has been steadily eroded.
A succession of NDPPs occupied the office of the country’s top prosecutor at the Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge Building in Silverton, Pretoria, but none have been ablte to stick around. Vusi Pikoli was fired by caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe because he refused to bow to Thabo Mbeki and leave corrupt police chief Jackie Selebi alone. Menzi Simelane – a Zuma favourite – was booted out after the Constitutional Court agreed with the DA he was irregularly appointed and Mxolisi Nxasana was forced out thanks to the machinations of Zumaïte Nomgcobo Jiba, who remains a deputy NDPP to this day.
The appointment of Shaun Abrahams was perhaps Zuma’s deftest move of all. A pliable, bland and big-talking prosecutor (who loves bright, quadruple Windsor knotted ties) Abrahams time and again showed he was all bluster and no principle. His boorish announcement in October 2016 that he was going to nail then finance minister Pravin Gordhan and that "the time of disrespecting the NPA is over" wasn’t sad as much as it was comical. He was to be humiliated a few weeks later when the charges were embarrassingly and publicy dropped.
But Abrahams is most famous for his unflinching loyalty to Zuma, which he sought to protect at every corner: delaying, appealling and assisting wherever he could.
The Constitutional Court will on Monday in effect decide on Abrahams’ future. Technically the question at hand is whether or not Nxasana’s golden handshake of R17m is constitutional (the North Gauteng High Court found is was not) and whether or not there is a subsequent vacancy in the office of the NDPP (Abrahams argues "no").
President Cyril Ramaphosa, increasingly struggling to keep his "new dawn" alive, knows if he is to have any chance of cleaning up the state he needs a politically astute and independent prosecutor in charge of the NPA. If the court does the job for him, it will be easy. But if the court decides, as is quite possible, that the Nxasana matter has no bearing on Abrahams, Ramaphosa should immediately institute an inquiry into Abrahams’ fitness for office.
The NPA has been batted about, knocked around and defiled for too long. This country deserves a functioning, independent NPA. And Abrahams ain’t the guy to make it so.
- Pieter du Toit is News24's assistant editor for in-depth news.