National director of public prosecutions: A poisoned chalice
Shaun Abrahams has been kicked out of his job as SA’s top prosecutor — but who dares lift the poisoned chalice now?
Less than 12 hours after the Constitutional Court ruled that the appointment of Shaun Abrahams as national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) was invalid, the man widely favoured to replace him made it clear he didn’t want the job.
Vusi Pikoli — forced out as NDPP after he pushed for the prosecution of former police chief Jackie Selebi for corruption — tweeted that he would not be returning to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). "I wish to thank all those who have confidence in me. The truth is that I have no inytentions of going back to the NPA. I hope this closes the debate."
Last week, Pikoli said he hadn’t been approached to take the job, but declined to say if he would accept such an offer. "I don’t want to answer hypothetical questions because this puts pressure on the person who has the responsibility of appointing," he said.
By Monday night, however, Pikoli had clearly decided to take himself out of the running — in the most public way possible.
Responses were telling. "I don’t blame you Vusi Pikoli," one Tweet read. "You were treated reprehensibly … we lost a great servant of the people as a result."
Another response was perhaps closer to the truth, stating: "Everybody is scared of this position."
With good reason. The job of the NDPP is a poisoned chalice. Not one official appointed to the post has ever served his full 10-year term.
The first NDPP, Bulelani Ngcuka, lasted the longest — six years. None of the others, including Abrahams, stayed in the post more than three years.
As former senior prosecutor and current DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach tells the FM: "I don’t think anyone remotely sane would take the job. No-one wants this job. But you don’t do it because you want to — you do it because you have to."
Breytenbach says that whoever the new prosecution boss is, he or she will have to work 18-hour days to restore morale — and there are a number of prosecutions that must happen almost immediately.
"There are people who need to go and people who need to be brought back. This is not a comfortable or easy job. But you don’t become a prosecutor to be comfortable," she says.
Breytenbach has been clear that she believes Pikoli was the right person to take over.
The Constitutional Court found that, because former president Jacob Zuma had unlawfully "bought" the removal of former NDPP Mxolisi Nxasana with a R17.3m "golden handshake", his subsequent appointment of Abrahams was also invalid.
Abrahams, the court said, was a beneficiary of Zuma’s "abuse of power" and could not remain in his position.
That abuse of power did not just define the Nxasana payout and the Abrahams appointment — it profoundly contributed to the disintegration of the NPA itself.
Zuma’s prosecution for corruption (which Ngcuka inexplicably failed to pursue but which was later taken on by Pikoli), and his increasingly desperate bid to stop it from proceeding, is linked to the collapse of the NPA. In particular, two of his most bizarre appointments — Menzi Simelane as NDPP and Nomgcobo Jiba as deputy NDPP — suggest his motivation was to find docile officials who would serve his interest, and not that of the public. Insiders say it was his fear of prosecution that did the most damage to the institution.
Nxasana is adamant his removal was driven by Zuma’s belief that he would prosecute him for corruption.
Asked by the FM after the Constitutional Court ruling this week if he would still have the job if he had told Zuma he would never face trial, Nxasana replies: "I think so. But I couldn’t give him that assurance."
Efforts to push Nxasana out of the NPA began just nine months after he started. They intensified after he tried to take action against Jiba over the multiple negative rulings against her.
The Constitutional Court said it had sympathy for Nxasana’s position but ordered him to repay R10.2m of the golden handshake. "The inference is inescapable that [Zuma] was buying Mr Nxasana out of office," the judges said.
Now that Zuma is gone, President Cyril Ramaphosa is faced with a decision that will be seen as indicative of his commitment to the fight against corruption and the rebuilding of the NPA.
Whom he appoints as Abrahams’ successor may be one of the biggest decisions of his presidency — and may be the most effective way to give the prosecuting authority, for the first time in over a decade, a real shot at genuine independence.
*Late on Tuesday afternoon President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Silas Ramaite would lead the NDPP in an acting capacity. Ramaite is the NPA’s deputy national director responsible for administration and the office for witness protection.