Editorial: Political meddling haunts NPA

“I felt it was important to send a clear message that political interference in the work of the National Prosecuting Authority would not be tolerated.” This is the thrust of deputy prosecutions chief Willie Hofmeyr’s justification for dropping fraud, corruption and money-laundering charges against Jacob Zuma.

In his response to the Democratic Alliance’s “spy tapes” case, tabled in court this week, Hofmeyr argues that a stand had to be taken against the manipulation of the Zuma case to serve then-president Thabo Mbeki’s political agenda, in particular by the then prosecutions head Bulelani Ngcuka, Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy and intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils.

Well, if that was Hofmeyr’s motive – and some see his role rather differently – he has failed. Political meddling in South Africa’s law enforcement authorities has become far more pervasive under Zuma’s presidency, to the point where it is undermining vital institutions of accountability and the rule of law.

And it is not too fanciful to see in the April 2009 decision to discontinue the Zuma prosecution (which Hofmeyr strongly supported) a crucial tipping point in that destructive decade-long rampage.

Hofmeyr’s defence of the decision is not particularly persuasive. The crux of the DA application for the reinstatement of charges is that the strength of the case, and the integrity of the prosecutors, was in no way affected by the political intriguing of McCarthy and other members of Mbeki’s circle. Political meddling or no, it is argued, there was still a substantial case to answer.

It is a view that was shared by prosecution leader Billy Downer and his “Bumiputera” team, as well as other key figures in the NPA, who did not want the charges dropped. And it remains largely intact.

Where Hofmeyr’s affidavit is uniquely valuable is in providing an insider’s view of how political meddling in the prosecutions service took root under Mbeki’s administration. The motives of the two leaders are very different: Zuma appears driven by an all-consuming fear of “having his day in court”; Mbeki’s overriding aim was to protect his power base and influential political allies, particularly Jackie Selebi, then the national commissioner of police.

Hofmeyr paints a compelling picture of persistent, apparently orchestrated interference in the Selebi corruption investigation: the police refusal to hand documents to the Scorpions; the suspension of NPA boss Vusi Pikoli; the cancellation of warrants of arrest and search; appointment of a panel to review the inquiry; and Mbeki’s claim to know nothing about the allegations’ substance.

Perhaps the most striking section of his affidavit concerns the alleged 2007 conspiracy against the head of the Selebi investigation team, Gerrie Nel, culminating in his arrest on trumped-up charges.

Central to that alleged plot are three familiar figures who would rise up the ranks under Zuma: Nomgcobo Jiba, Lawrence Mrwebi and Richard Mdluli. All are now suspects, facing various charges. And all are seen as cat’s paws of a new political master.

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