Editorial

We need to ensure our head of prosecutions is independent and impartial

12 August 2018 - 00:00 By Sunday Times

In the annals of history, former president Jacob Zuma will be known for the way he targeted and ultimately destroyed virtually all the institutions of state he could get his hands on.
Since his ascension to power in the ANC in 2007, one of the main institutions he had in his cross-hairs - for his own self-preservation - was the office of the prosecutions boss.
Ushered into power under a cloud of corruption that would follow him throughout his years as president and now into his retirement, Zuma undermined governance within the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
All appointments to the post of national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), from Menzi Simelane to the incumbent Shaun Abrahams, have been questionable. The credibility of the NPA has been undermined, which has proved rather useful for Zuma as he seeks to avoid a final reckoning in court.
Tomorrow, President Cyril Ramaphosa has an opportunity to start the long walk to restoring the country's faith in an institution that will be central to efforts to roll back the state capture narrative. The Constitutional Court is due to announce its decision on whether Abrahams's appointment as NDPP was legal.
This follows a ruling by the high court in Pretoria in December 2017 that Zuma had violated the constitution when he terminated the tenure of Abrahams's predecessor, Mxolisi Nxasana, and paid him a golden handshake of more than R17m.
The court ruled that this meant the appointment of Abrahams was invalid, but Abrahams appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court.
Whichever way the ruling goes tomorrow, the departure of Abrahams has to be the first step in cleansing the NPA of the stench of the past decade of governance collapse. Let his decision to reinstate corruption charges against Zuma be his final memorable act in office.But merely replacing Abrahams is unlikely to fix the fundamental problem, which is that NDPP appointments are made by the presidency. As we've learnt from Zuma, not all our leaders have the integrity that was one of the hallmarks of Nelson Mandela's administration.
Ramaphosa may prove to be a huge improvement on Zuma, but who comes after him?
While the highlight reel of the rot in the NPA often focuses only on the scandals of the Zuma years, controversy also dogged the institution during the tenure of former president Thabo Mbeki.
Think of Bulelani Ngcuka, and his ambivalence over whether to charge Zuma, which raised suspicions of political influence over the NDPP. Subsequently Mbeki clashed with Vusi Pikoli over his decision to prosecute the then commissioner of police, Jackie Selebi, using convicted drug dealer Glenn Agliotti as his star witness.
Given the level of corruption in SA, a rot that has deeply infected the body politic and the governing party in particular, can we trust the presidency with sole rights to the job of hiring and firing the country's top prosecutor?
The position has become such a political hot potato over the past decade that the fight against crime has been compromised, allowing criminals to operate with impunity.
While we consider amendments to the constitution around land expropriation, should we not also consider changing how and by whom the NDPP is appointed? The position of governor of the South African Reserve Bank is constitutionally protected from the midnight whims of presidential reshuffles; should our chief prosecutor not be afforded the same protection?
This is perhaps the fundamental weakness in SA's faltering attempts to rein in crime, from street-level violence to white-collar shenanigans in the boardroom. Perpetrators need to know that prosecutors will go after them without fear or favour.

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