National director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
National director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

At long last, former president Jacob Zuma is to be charged with the 16 counts of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering — related to the 1990s arms deal — that he should have faced a decade ago.

It’s hard not to wonder whether SA might have been spared the enormous damage that the Zuma years wrought to its institutions, its economy and its social fabric if the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had pressed ahead with these charges all those years ago, instead of withdrawing them on the eve of the 2009 general election as the then acting national director of public prosecutions Mokotedi Mpshe decided to do back in April 2009.

The Supreme Court of Appeal in October upheld the high court’s 2016 ruling that Mpshe’s decision was irrational. The Supreme Court’s ruling, which came after Zuma himself, bizarrely, conceded that the decision had been irrational, meant that those 2009 charges stood.

The choice of KwaZulu-Natal director of public prosecutions Moipone Noko is just one reason why Abrahams — and his henchpeople — need to go

Zuma then made representations to National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams on why he shouldn’t be charged, but Abrahams turned him down, announcing on Friday that the prosecution would go ahead, taking forward what he called a "long, litigious and unending" history since the investigation into the arms deal began two decades ago.

The decision is most certainly welcome, but the temptation to give any credit for it to "Shaun the sheep" Abrahams himself should be resisted, especially given the red flags that his Friday announcement should have raised. If anything, the case for President Cyril Ramaphosa to remove Abrahams is stronger and more urgent than ever.

In reality, Abrahams didn’t make a decision at all: he had no option but to say he would go ahead with the prosecution given the Supreme Court of Appeal’s ruling in October. The question is more what took him so long — and the answer no doubt is that in typical fashion he allowed Zuma time to try to game the legal system. This is what Zuma has been doing all these years despite his protestations that he wanted his day in court. We now know that Zuma has cost taxpayers more than R15.3m in legal costs — and that’s not counting the steep costs to the state itself, as well as to the political parties such as the DA and civil-society organisations that have brought court challenges to his legal manoeuvres over the years.

But if the length of time Abrahams has taken to make what’s essentially a nondecision is disturbing, far more so is what appears to be a back-up plan he has put in place to undermine the chances that the NPA’s prosecution of Zuma will succeed.

Abrahams has put KwaZulu-Natal director of public prosecutions Moipone Noko in charge, which means she will be calling the shots and will be making decisions crucial to the success or otherwise of the case, even though the NPA’s Billy Downer is the prosecutor. The trouble is that Noko is a well-known Zuma loyalist who has a long history of dropping charges against the former president’s friends and bringing nonsense cases against prosecutors and judges in KwaZulu-Natal who tried to stand up to him.

The choice of Noko is just one reason why Abrahams — and his henchpeople — need to go, as soon as possible, so that corruption cases such as the Zuma case can succeed and the NPA’s independence and integrity can be restored. There are plenty of other reasons to get rid of Abrahams, who, undeterred by the debacle of the trumped-up charges he brought against Pravin Gordhan in 2016, has now brought fresh charges against former acting South African Revenue Service commissioner Ivan Pillay and two other former executives of the tax agency related to the alleged "rogue unit".

Ramaphosa has no chance of delivering on his promises to clean up corruption and state capture as long as SA’s law-enforcement institutions are staffed by the likes of Abrahams and Noko. He needs to act decisively to put new, independent and credible leaders in place to repair those institutions.

Fortunately, Abrahams may soon be gone anyway if the Constitutional Court upholds the 2017 high-court ruling that Abrahams’s appointment was never valid in the first place (because the R17m settlement that Zuma paid former NPA head Mxolisi Nxasana to go away was not legal).

Disgracefully, Zuma seems to be contemplating yet another stalling tactic. His lawyer, Michael Hulley, is threatening to take Abrahams’s decision to charge on review. If he does, the state must not pay a cent of the legal costs — it surely shouldn’t be paying any more of Zuma’s already bloated legal bill.

Meanwhile, Mpshe has gone on radio to defend his 2009 decision not to charge. He has a lot to answer for.