SA's new National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi. Picture: GCIS
SA's new National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi. Picture: GCIS

Less than 24 hours after newly appointed prosecutions head Shamila Batohi told SA that “justice must win”, EFF leader Julius Malema made the harsh reality of what she has signed up for very clear, accusing her of being a puppet with no evidence.

Malema’s comments followed Batohi’s first press conference on Friday, at which she addressed the “cancer of impunity” that has ravaged the rule of law in SA.

“Perpetrators of crime and corruption, within the state or private sector, regardless of who you are, where you are, how rich you are, your days of acting with impunity are numbered,” she said.

A day later, speaking at the EFF manifesto launch, Malema accused Batohi of being “too close” to his nemesis, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan.

Gordhan and Malema have both laid criminal charges against each other, and Batohi may be called upon to decide the fate of either, or both.

Perhaps more pressingly for Malema, the EFF’s leadership is the subject of an intense investigation over its alleged involvement in the looting of VBS Mutual Bank, a case that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) will need to make a call on.

So Malema’s attacks on Batohi, made nearly two months after he welcomed her appointment in parliament, are unsurprising, and arguably strategic.

It is also unlikely to be the last time Batohi will face these kinds of accusations, and there can be no doubt that she knows this. But she was at pains in her first media conference to make it clear that she would not tolerate political interference in the work of the NPA.

“I did have a conversation with the president [Cyril Ramaphosa] and I said to him ‘I know that [independence of the NPA] is guaranteed in the constitution, but I want you, sitting here, to give me that assurance.’ Unhesitatingly, the president said: ‘There will be no political interference into the work of the NPA.’

“So I feel fairly confident that will not happen, but who knows what’s going to happen in the future? And if it does, for any reason, then I will fiercely defend it [the independence of the NPA]. “It’s a constitutional issue, and I will take it to the Constitutional Court, if needs be.”

Batohi’s promise to turn to SA's highest court if she is bullied is arguably a smart strategy, and a real assurance that those contemplating behind-the-scenes pressure may find themselves exposed.

Ramaphosa’s assurance to Batohi, in turn, comes at a time of unprecedented evidence suggesting corruption among high-level members of his own government and party, and with the Zondo commission into state capture hearing as-yet-untested evidence that senior NPA officials were paid to ensure cases linked to alleged Bosasa tender rigging never saw the light of day.

Bosasa is a facilities management company that scored billions of rands in government contractsin exchange for millions of rand in bribes, free security systems and even chicken braai packs for senior ANC members, according to the evidence of former Bosasa staff members.

Former Bosasa COO Angelo Agrizzi has  testified that the company paid bribes through an intermediary to former acting  national director of public prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba, her assistant Jackie Lepinka and senior state advocate Lawrence Mrwebi to block prosecutions. Both Jiba and Mrwebi, who deny these claims, are in the midst of an inquiry into their fitness to hold office.

While not addressing Jiba or Mrwebi by name, Batohi stressed that “prosecutors are not for sale”, and made it clear there needs  to be an urgent “change in leadership” at the NPA.

What that means, in real terms, remains to be seen. But Batohi knows she is facing a real battle to save the NPA. And she cannot do it with staff that neither she nor the public can trust.