Shaun Abrahams. Picture: ALON SKUY
Shaun Abrahams. Picture: ALON SKUY

In an unprecedented move, President Cyril Ramaphosa is turning to an outside panel to help him identify a new head for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

The move to consult more widely in the search for a replacement for former national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) Shaun Abrahams — a Jacob Zuma appointee best known for a farcical attempt to prosecute then finance minister Pravin Gordhan in 2016 — is a major departure from the unilateral and opaque nature of previous appointments.

Ramaphosa has slightly more than a month left to appoint a new leader for an institution that is central to crime fighting.

The decision to seek advice from top legal organisations comes after hundreds of desperate prosecutors appealed to the president to address the "absence of proper leadership".

The vacuum at the top had left the organisation "weak and divided", the Society of State Advocates and Prosecutors of SA (Saapsa) said in a letter sent to Ramaphosa in September and posted on its website.

Ramaphosa’s delay in replacing Abrahams, after the Constitutional Court confirmed in August that Abrahams’s appointment by his predecessor, Zuma, had been invalid, has undermined his stated aim of addressing "leadership issues" at the NPA.

The highest court in the country gave the president 90 days to appoint a new head of public prosecutions.

It remains unclear why justice & constitutional development minister Michael Masutha, who would ordinarily be responsible for providing Ramaphosa with the names of suitable NDPP candidates, has seemingly been unable to do so.

"This post is a poisoned chalice," an NPA insider told Business Day on Tuesday.

Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko said the advisory panel would include minister in the presidency Jeff Radebe, as well as representatives from the General Council of the Bar, Law Society, National Association of Democratic Lawyers, Black Lawyers Association, Advocates for Transformation, the Human Rights Commission and the auditor-general’s office.

The panel will have the job of identifying suitable candidates for the post, in which no official has completed a full term. Ramaphosa will also submit the names of his own suggested candidates.

The panel will then provide the president with three to five names.

Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution said the process should be similar to the Judicial Service Commission’s interviews of prospective judges. These interviews are open to the public and known to include robust and no-holds-barred questioning from commission members.

Freedom Under Law’s Nicole Fritz said on Tuesday that, while Ramaphosa was not constitutionally required to consult with anyone on the NDPP appointment, the decision was "welcome". Inquiries into state capture and the SA Revenue Service showed why "the leadership of the NPA, and the genuine independence and ability of any future NDPP is so pivotal".

In its letter to Ramaphosa, Saapsa appealed to him to "take the utmost care and consideration in the appointment of an NDPP" and consult with prosecutors who would work under the director.

"In a crime-ridden country like South Africa, where crime has become part of every citizen’s life, the NPA is the last line of defence in the fight against crime," Saapsa’s Eliveera du Plooy wrote on behalf of the society’s more than 500 prosecutor members.

"When the NPA, one of the pillars in the criminal justice system, is threatened in any manner, it not only affects the criminal justice system, but also the public it serves," she said.

Referring to the NPA’s 23% vacancy rate; the exodus of prosecutors from the NPA to the magistracy or the private sector; the NPA’s increasingly tough financial situation; and levels of stress experienced by the prosecutors, Du Plooy said morale was at an "all time low."