Turnaround at the NPA: Jiba and Mrwebi axed
Cyril Ramaphosa’s firing of Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi offers the National Prosecuting Authority a fresh start
February 21 was a historic day for Nomgcobo Jiba: it was the first time she spoke out publicly against allegations, circulating for years, that she had protected powerful individuals and politicians in discharging her duties as a senior official of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
Jiba’s tone was one of measured outrage as she told her side of a story that has spanned more than a decade. She was speaking at an inquiry, chaired by former Constitutional Court justice Yvonne Mokgoro, into her fitness to hold office.
Jiba told how she had started as a young Eastern Cape prosecutor and, against all odds, had risen through the ranks of the NPA. She said she had proved an inspiration when she was appointed deputy national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) in 2010, and shortly thereafter as acting head of the NPA — a first for a black woman in SA.
But, she said, she had been shocked by the pushback to her elevation.
"When my appointment to the position of deputy NDPP in 2010 was announced, I faced unprecedented attacks," she said. "One political party [the DA] led the charge and declared that I was not to be trusted to serve my country in that position in accordance with the requirements of the constitution and the law. So unfair, harsh and vicious were these attacks that they prompted the minister of justice & constitutional development to issue a public statement in my defence."
In time, it would not just be the DA that believed Jiba could not be trusted to lead the NPA’s prosecution services — her responsibility as one of four deputy NDPPs.
Mokgoro found Jiba and special director of public prosecutions Lawrence Mrwebi were not fit to hold office and that they had brought the NPA into disrepute, not acting impartially or with the required level of competence. Based on the recommendation by Mokgoro and her co-panellists, President Cyril Ramaphosa fired Jiba and Mrwebi last week (though parliament could theoretically overturn that decision).
The move is a huge boost to the process of restoring the integrity of the institution. It also means these senior posts can be filled with people who have not brought the NPA into disrepute, nor been seen to protect politically connected individuals.
The NPA must instil a strong sense of constitutional values and belief in the rule of lawMokgoro report
But, despite the evidence given against them, Jiba and Mrwebi believed they should be given a soft landing. Jiba asked Ramaphosa to redeploy her to another senior position in the state, while Mrwebi asked to be allowed to retire, as he is already over the age of 60.
Both requests were denied — resulting in outrage from Jiba, who has already indicated that she will challenge Ramaphosa’s decision if parliament confirms her axing. Clearly, Ramaphosa decided that Jiba was not the kind of prosecutor who should be employed by the state — never mind the NPA, while Mrwebi could not just be left to retire.
The two cases that had most influence on the inquiry’s findings were Jiba’s decision to institute racketeering charges against former KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Johan Booysen, and Mrwebi’s decision to drop charges against former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.
Mrwebi dropped charges against Mdluli in the face of vehement opposition from prosecutors working on the case, as well as the Hawks. And Jiba did not review the case when she was asked to do so, or take into consideration a memo from the prosecutors arguing that Mdluli had a prima facie case to answer.
The charges against Booysen were thought to be trumped up — a response to his investigations of, for example, controversial businessman Thoshan Panday, who was in a business partnership with then president Jacob Zuma’s son Edward.
The Zuma thread weaves through Jiba and Mrwebi’s careers at the NPA. Mdluli, for example, is considered a staunch Zuma ally. Graft charges against him were dropped almost a decade ago.
The most prominent link to Zuma was the presidential pardon he granted to Jiba’s husband, Booker Nhantsi, in September 2010 — a mere three months before Jiba was appointed deputy NDPP.
During the inquiry Jiba said she saw no reason why she should have recused herself from dealing with the corruption case against Jacob Zuma and resultant litigation, despite the pardon given to her husband.
Mokgoro’s report notes that then justice minister Jeff Radebe had recommended that Nhantsi’s request for pardon be refused because of the seriousness of the offence (the theft of estate money while he was practising as an attorney), the short time that had lapsed since his conviction, and because no exceptional circumstances had been shown, making the pardon "imprudent".
Despite Radebe’s objections, Nhantsi was pardoned nine months later.
Jiba, for her part, was adamant during the inquiry that she had only limited participation in the litigation that ensued after charges against Zuma were unlawfully and irrationally dropped by former acting NDPP Mokotedi Mpshe.
She could not, she said, have done anything to save the former president.
Though the panel did not pass comment on Jiba’s conduct in its findings, it said her actions had a bearing on her integrity, and had damaged the office of the NDPP in the eyes of the public.
The panel said Jiba and Mrwebi had "failed to introspect and reflect on the issues which have beset the NPA with their involvement, as reflected in this report".
Throughout, they positioned themselves as victims, claiming the process was unfair to them.
Jiba said the inquiry did not take into consideration that she had three children and her elderly mother to care for, that she did not want to be part of SA’s unemployment statistics, and that the government could ill afford losing her as a prosecutor, given her institutional knowledge.
WHAT IT MEANS
The firing of Jiba and Mrwebi is a huge boost to the process of restoring the NPA's integrity
Mrwebi, on the other hand, asked Ramaphosa to consider the "chilling effect" his decision would have on the body of prosecutors.
Ramaphosa was having none of it; he said their representations were insufficient to convince him to reject the panel’s recommendations.
It’s a decision that underscores the importance of integrity. As in the case of the axing of former SA Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane, Ramaphosa has sent a message: there are consequences for civil servants found wanting when it comes to putting the constitution first.
Not that the NPA will miraculously be fixed by Jiba and Mrwebi’s firing. There are no quick fixes in restoring an institution hollowed out so thoroughly.
But Mokgoro and her team had some advice on turning the institution around: "The NPA must instil a strong sense of constitutional values and belief in the rule of law. When these values are internalised and fought for vociferously from within the NPA, only then will the institution enjoy the confidence of the citizenry and become the prosecuting authority that South Africans deserve."
As new NDPP Shamila Batohi said on Friday, Ramaphosa’s decision has set the NPA on a new path. But it’s not necessarily going to be an easy one.