The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) is used to being in battle.
Since its establishment after 1994, replacing the old system where attorneys-general were in charge of prosecutions, the institution has suffered under a succession of upheavals, undermining its credibility and stunting the administration of justice.
Shaun Abrahams, the current National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP), is certainly not the first NDPP to suffer under brickbats handed out by critics. And certainly no punter will be willing to take a wager on him finishing his term: not one NDPP — not a single one — has seen out his contract. Forced retirement, commissions of inquiry and Constitutional Court challenges have all prematurely ended every NDPP's term of office over the last decade and a half.
Not one NDPP — not a single one — has seen out his contract.
The function of the NPA, to manage the dispensing of justice in accordance with law, is governed by the NPA Act and enshrined in the Constitution. The central tenet of the NPA is that is must be independent from political interference and prosecute without "fear, favour or prejudice". The NPA, however, has always been politically interfered with — whether by pressure put on the NDPP not to institute charges against someone, or decisions to do the opposite.
Bulelani Ngcuka was the first NDPP embroiled in controversy when he decided not to prosecute then-deputy president Jacob Zuma for corruption in 2003, even though there was prima facie evidence that he was guilty of corruption. This led to a storm — why would the NDPP say Zuma could stand trial, but then not charge him? Ngcuka went even further: he held an off the record briefing with newspaper editors, which opened him up to further attacks that he was manipulating public opinion about Zuma. He left in 2004.
His successor, Vusi Pikoli, left after a commission of inquiry — a commission instituted because he refused a request by then-president Thabo Mbeki not to charge former police commissioner Jackie Selebi with corruption charges. Pikoli fought back vigorously, resisting attempts to force him to resign and taking the matter to Parliament. In the end, he was forced out by the unrelenting efforts by the Zuma ANC to install someone more pliable in the NDPP office in the Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge Building in Silverton, Pretoria, where the NPA has its headquarters.
Since Pikoli, a decent man and a good jurist, was unceremoniously dumped by the same Members of Parliament that decapitated the Directorate of Special Operations (the DSO, or Scorpions), there has been a veritable procession of NDPP's. Mokotedi Mpshe acted after Pikoli left. Zuma — again — was not indicted on 783 counts of corruption. This decision, weeks before the general election in May 2009, caused un uproar and dragged Ngcuka back into the spotlight — he was accused of meddling in the NPA and Scorpion's affairs and gave a reason for Mpshe (later rewarded with a place on the North West bench as an acting judge) to back off Zuma.
Mpshe's successor, Menzi Simelane, a former director general of justice, was a victim of Zuma's increasing desire to establish a Praetorian guard around him, sentries in crucial government departments to shield him from prosecution. The Constitutional Court, however, found that there were irregularities in his appointment and that he was not fit to be the NDPP. He left after three years.
Menzi Simelane, a former director general of justice, was a victim of Zuma's increasing desire to establish a Praetorian guard around him, sentries in crucial government departments to shield him from prosecution.
No worries for Zuma though — Nomgcobo Jiba, a close ally (and someone eventually disbarred) was the perfect placeholder until a relatively unknown prosecutor from KwaZulu-Natal was appointed. Mxolisi Nxasana was no lackey, however. Much like another disliked advocate (and, from Zuma's perspective, a poor appointment), Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Nxasana proved to be independent in thought and action. He was on a mission to reorganise the top structure of the NPA, starting with the removal of Jiba and her close crony, Lawrence Mrwebi, when he too was coerced into leaving early.
Thus, Shaun Abrahams, the man with the most impressive Windsor knot in the Southern Hemisphere and a strut which suggests he knows where his succour comes from, arrived on the scene. One of his first acts, in 2016, was to appeal a North Gauteng High Court judgment that set aside Mpshe's earlier decision to let Zuma off the hook — even though a full bench of the court denied leave to appeal because "there are no reasonable chances of success". His second order of business was to hold a Hollywood-style press conference where he demanded respect, declared nobody was above the law and proceeded to charge Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan with fraud days before his midterm budget speech.
Shaun Abrahams, the man with the most impressive Windsor-knot in the Southern Hemisphere and a strut which suggests he knows where his succour comes from.
Abrahams is now fending off an effort by some civil society groups and opposition parties to have him suspended. Nothing new for the office of the beleaguered NDPP and the NPA.