The man who won't go down
Two leading members of the NPA were pitted against each other recently. We profile both men Aslo read The Master of Compromise
Flying to Johannesburg on Sunday for what was set to be the most gruelling encounter of his 23-year career Billy Downer probably wondered how different things could have been had he taken up acting instead of law.
As a schoolboy at Pretoria Boys’ High Downer had fellow pupils in stitches with his performances from the sillier end of the repertoire—particularly the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Today, as the black-robed accuser-in-chief for the National Prosecuting Authority, Downer is cast as the nemesis of our presumptive president, Jacob Zuma, whose passage to the Union Buildings hinged last week on a decision by the NPA on whether to press ahead with charges against him.
Interviewed in June 2005 after the successful prosecution of Zuma’s financial adviser Schabir Shaik, Downer recalled his passion for theatre, but said he had realised he wasn’t good enough to make it professionally, and chose instead the “better paying” job of prosecutor.
More money, perhaps, although not nearly as much as he would make at the Bar in private practice. But also more strain and pressure, as he must have been reminded this week.
Although a veil of secrecy has been drawn around those discussions it is clear that acting NPA chief Mokotedi Mpshe and his deputy, Willie Hofmeyr, are having a hard time convincing Downer that it would be in the national interest to abandon the Zuma case.
To anyone who has watched the unfolding of the case it came as no surprise when Mpshe on Monday failed to announce the dropping of charges, despite widespread reports that he would do so.
Some would argue that Downer had become too attached to the case, clinging to the charge sheet like a mother to her newborn.
Downer would no doubt differ.
Sixteen judges, he might point out, have agreed that Shaik had a corrupt relationship with Zuma. And almost 99% of the state’s evidence was accepted in the Shaik trial.
Without doubt Downer would have insisted to his bosses that it’s in the public interest to continue with the case. Evidence in the form of secret tape recordings does not detract from the solidity of the case against the ANC president, he must have argued.
Hofmeyr is widely seen as a fan of Downer and his approach to the Shaik trial. If he does indeed differ fundamentally from Downer’s approach to the future of the case, he would certainly have listened carefully to his colleague’s arguments and given him a fair chance.
William John Downer was brought up in suburban Pretoria. He excelled at public speaking, a skill that would stand him in good stead later in his life. His favourite subject at university was Latin and he put it to use frequently during the Shaik trial. After completing his law degree Downer was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, which took him to Oxford University for two years. Back in South Africa conscription duties lay in wait. Downer worked in the South African Defence Force’s legal department and later as a staff officer.
His first job as prosecutor was at the Kuils River Magistrate’s Court in Cape Town. Since 1986 he has worked as a state advocate for the NPA in Cape Town, where he lives with his partner of 23 years, William de Villiers.
In an interview with Beeld in 2005 Downer credited his parents for his sense of justice. “It’s something you learn. It depends on how you were raised. My parents were Sappe [supporters of the United Party] and against the [National Party] government. They always told us to do something; to get involved.”
It was, however, Judge Frank Kirk-Cohen’s words on the day he was confirmed as an advocate that have guided his professional decisions as prosecutor: “Billy, remember that you always decide what is right first. Then you find legislation that fits with it.”
That was also his motto in prosecuting Shaik and during the Zuma investigation. Decide what is right first, and then convince the court to accept your truth.
An example was the encrypted fax, which proved Shaik had solicited a R500 000 a year bribe for Zuma from arms giant Thales.
Downer couldn’t convince the author to testify, but persuaded Judge Hilary Squires to accept the document as evidence on three legal grounds.
In 2005 Downer told Beeld he felt no political pressure in the Zuma investigation. “Before 1994 we never listened to the government when there was so-called pressure. Why would I now?”
He is on the biggest stage available right now, and while we aren’t laughing, we are all riveted.