Out of favour
How Shaun the sheep broke the NPA
There are some jobs in SA that no-one has managed to survive. Bafana Bafana coach, police commissioner and national director of public prosecutions are three examples.
The last of these may be the most poisoned of chalices. In the history of democratic SA, no head of the prosecuting authority has ever served a full 10-year term.
So in June last year, when advocate Shaun Abrahams was announced as the institution’s new leader (and the first insider to fill the role), the reception was understandably cynical.
Make no mistake: the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has always been a heavily politicised and deeply factionalised organisation.
In this context, there was already considerable doubt that Abrahams would be able to remain independent.
His detractors saw him as aligned to the controversial (and now suspended) deputy director Nomgcobo Jiba and by implication, to President Jacob Zuma.
Sure, Abrahams had been a successful prosecutor. He had won plaudits in some high-profile cases, such as the conviction of Nigerian militant leader Henry Okah, the matter of the Equatorial Guinea coup plotters, and the murder of Rwandan spy chief Patrick Karegeya.
But equally, he had leapfrogged several rungs on the ladder, jumping from acting head of the priority crimes litigation unit to fill the top job.
At just 39 years old, he was also relatively young — raising questions over whether he had the gravitas, maturity and political savvy to navigate his way through the landmines of the job.
Today, one year later, his detractors are shouting from the rooftops: "I told you so!"
It’s the morning after the day before and Shaun Abrahams is Public Enemy Number One. He and his eyebrows are on the front page of every newspaper in the country due to his embarrassing backpedalling on the prosecution of finance minister Pravin Gordhan.
After defiantly announcing at a Hollywood-style press conference that Gordhan and former revenue service commissioners Oupa Magashula and Ivan Pillay would be prosecuted for fraud, three weeks later Abrahams returned to face the phalanx of cameras to announce the U-turn.
It was a cringefest, leading to him being mercilessly mocked on social media.
Following the announcement he is referred to as "Shaun the Sheep" — firstly, for the assumption that he blindly complied with instructions of those seen to be his political masters in prosecuting Gordhan and then because of his sheepish climbdown.
Welcoming the Financial Mail into his office , he says he doesn’t follow social media, so has not been aware of the backlash. He is not aware of his nickname.
Abrahams lightheartedly describes his eyebrows as "iconic", and suggests that perhaps he should have them trimmed.
(Even though he claims not to have seen the press coverage, I’m told he has hired a media monitoring company to ensure every article mentioning him and the NPA is delivered to his inbox.)
His desk is meticulous, and there is no single indicator of his personal character in the room.
"My oath of office lies next to my desk. Every morning when I come in, I take my oath of office.
"That’s how seriously I take this job," he says.
His "protectors" man the security doors into his wing, and no cellphones are allowed. I’m also told he has his office swept regularly for bugging devices.
Despite being widely admonished and ridiculed, Abrahams still comes across as affable and courteous. He is polite and well mannered. "I come from humble beginnings, had a good Christian upbringing. I was born in a mission station near Piketberg in the Cape," he says. His father was in construction, his mother a teacher.
"I still speak to them regularly. I’m a very strong person. I’m a tremendously strong character, I have a very strong support system in place," he says.
His mother still refers to him by his pet name, "Pikkewyntjie." It’s a nickname that stuck after he learnt to walk at eight months, seeming to shuffle around like a baby penguin.
Abrahams was schooled in Pietermaritzburg, where he spent more time focusing on rugby than on academics. At university, he played for some invitational provincial sides, but his attention was drawn back to his career.
"I realised I was a better lawyer than rugby player. But obviously the current feeling in the country is different right now," he jokes, self-deprecatingly.
So why did he take the job, having seen his predecessors being mauled?
"I’ve been a career prosecutor. The NPA and the administration of justice to the people of this country have been my life," he says.
Abrahams admits he sometimes comes across as aggressive when he engages with the media, but attributes this to "the passion I have for prosecution".
The matter relating to the president is pending in the supreme court of appeal. The chance of the matter finally ending up in the constitutional court is very good. As of today, there has been no need for me to consider the merits of the matter because of the legal processes that have taken place
He says he believes he can "make a difference".
"I was very mindful of the history of the institution, of what happened to all my predecessors and what the circumstances were under which they left. I’m confident that my position is different," he says.
As for allowing himself to be manipulated, Abrahams says it’s mischievous to suggest he is a "Jiba man" or a "Zuma man".
"It’s a completely incorrect assessment to make. I’ve always been my own person, my own individual; I make my own decisions, I’ve never aligned myself to persons," he says. He argues that not only has he never been part of any political campaign, but adds (surprisingly) that he’s not even that interested in current politics in SA.
"We find ourselves in a huge political quagmire and many are trying to pull the NPA into this. I’m trying to do my level best to pull the NPA out of it," he says.
Many will find this hard to believe, considering that the prevailing narrative is that Abrahams has been doing the bidding of either Zuma or Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza.
It’s a false narrative, says Abrahams.
"That is certainly not the case. If [it was], why would I withdraw the charges?" he offers, almost in desperation.
Rather, he says, he applied his mind to the representations of the people who were being charged. "I don’t regret coming to the decision. I did it by taking the country into my confidence. I wanted to show transparency, the independence of the NPA and my own independence," he says.
One thing you can’t fault him on is staying on message.
Abrahams reiterates that he didn’t make the decision to charge Gordhan, and merely reviewed the case brought by acting head of the priority crimes litigation unit, Torie Pretorius, and North Gauteng director of public prosecutions Sibongile Mzinyathi. The problem is that many don’t believe him.
That he visited Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters, the day before charging Gordhan doesn’t help his argument.
But he is at pains to explain this.
"I was an hour away from a dentist’s appointment. A dentist’s appointment I had been waiting for ... and the minister phoned me and said there was an urgent justice, crime prevention and security cluster meeting with the president, and the president was leaving the country later that evening," he says.
I am more than fit and proper to hold this position. I am more than fit and proper to be a member of the advocates profession
He pauses to add that he’d never been to Luthuli House before.
"Buses were burning. Shops were being looted. The country was in a state of anarchy. Why should I not attend an emergency meeting relating to the security cluster to give effect to the rule of law?" he says.
There was, he says, nothing sinister about the meeting. "I did not discuss the issue [charging Gordhan] with the president," he says.
When his integrity is questioned, his fierce prosecutorial traits emerge.
Commentators have proposed that either he is politically captured or, at best, horribly incompetent.
He takes umbrage. "Firstly, I’m not politically captured. I’m not captured by anyone," his iconic eyebrows furrow and his voice becomes stern. "And as for my competence , my career speaks for itself. He calls this confidence; only, it comes across as more like hubris.
He may have become a laughing stock to some, but Abrahams seems not to mind.
"It tells you where we’ve come to as a nation, when people resort to taking things to such a personal level. I don’t really want to comment on it ..." he trails off.
From here, though, it seems the only way for the NPA to regain credibility would be for Abrahams to fall on his sword, or to make a decision directly opposed to the political narrative — such as charging Zuma with corruption.
But Abrahams is resolute: "I certainly will not resign."
Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering he has barely made any concessions, refusing to even apologise to Gordhan.
So what about prosecuting Zuma? Abraham says: "The matter relating to the president is pending in the supreme court of appeal. The chance of the matter finally ending up in the constitutional court is very good. As of today, there has been no need for me to consider the merits of the matter because of the legal processes that have taken place."
But he says that if the matter came to him, he’d do what is necessary.
"I would charge a sitting president if a sitting president has a case to answer to. It doesn’t matter who it is," he says.
To be fair, not all are at daggers drawn. A senior counsel who has worked closely with Abrahams heaps praise on him
Of course, he might not be there to make this call.
Julius Malema’s EFF has written to the general council of the bar asking that he be struck from the roll of advocates. Civil society organisations also want Zuma to suspend him, pending an inquiry into his fitness to hold office.
Freedom Under Law and the Helen Suzman Foundation have described him as "reckless in the extreme", saying he "showed a spectacular dearth of conscientiousness" and "lacks the required integrity".
They add that "even if his conduct was a bona fide blunder, he has brought the NPA into disrepute" and continues to "erode public confidence in law-enforcement institutions".
Abrahams rejects this. "I am more than fit and proper to hold this position. I am more than fit and proper to be a member of the advocates profession," he states in staccato, offended by the suggestion.
Despite the Gordhan debacle, he says morale at the NPA remains high.
Some of his prosecutors, however, say he is deluded if he believes that.
"If you go to lower courts, people are very disillusioned. They have no idea why we are involved in politics. When you stand up in court, you are tainted by the NPA brush and it is very demoralising," one senior prosecutor says. Abrahams is unpopular and seen as detached, he adds.
"He’s always been arrogant and pompous. He is not open to suggestions.
"He was not a very good prosecutor — if you look at what he actually did in those high-profile cases, it wasn’t very much," says the prosecutor.
Another prosecutor says angrily that Abrahams "sits in his ivory tower with his gym and thinks he knows what is going on. He has delusions of grandeur."
Abrahams does indeed have his own personal gym in his office, even though there is already a gym at the NPA’s Silverton headquarters. He insists on showing it to me before I leave.
Dry walling has been erected to close in a passageway and the equipment is his own: a treadmill, an exercise bike, a boxing bag and free weights. It’s not much, but it clearly rankles with his staff.
To be fair, not all are at daggers drawn. A senior counsel who has worked closely with Abrahams heaps praise on him, saying he is just misunderstood.
"He will always do the right thing. He is passionate about the job and strives to be independent. He has a great history as a prosecutor and is one of the most affable people you could meet. He has humility; people regard his passion as arrogance," says the lawyer.
It’s hardly surprising that after the past week, Abrahams makes a plea to be judged on what he does in future, rather than "on this one particular matter".
Sadly for him, though, judgment in the court of public opinion has already been passed. And in that court, there is little margin for representations or for appeal. Moving back from the sheep shed would be extremely difficult.
What it means: Shaun Abrahams is resolute that he will not resign as prosecution head and that he will prosecute anyone who has a case to answer to.