Time will judge prosecutions boss
It was a day in March or April of 1999, he can’t remember the exact month. But it was the day when Shaun Abrahams – then 21 and now South Africa’s fifth national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) – successfully prosecuted his first case. It was in the Pietermaritzburg magistrate’s court in KwaZulu-Natal and Abrahams got an elderly man sent to jail for possession of dagga.
Abrahams started his career as a clerk of the court and studied law at night, after being awarded a bursary.
He had no idea then that, 15 years later, in 2013, he would help send Nigerian terrorist Henry Okah to jail for 24 years, or become South Africa’s prosecutions boss two years later.
Abrahams described the case against Okah as the most difficult of his career: “The Nigerian matter was so complicated in that the crime was committed in Nigeria, even though he conspired to commit some of these crimes from our shores,” he told the Mail & Guardian this week.
Okah was found guilty on 13 counts of terrorism, including engaging in terrorist activities, conspiracy to engage in terrorist activities, and delivering, placing and detonating an explosive device in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Twelve people were killed and 36 injured by the blast on the anniversary of the country’s independence in October 2010.
Abrahams had to prove his case depending solely on evidence that was in Nigeria, negotiating with the Nigerian government and travelling to Abuja to interview key witnesses, some of whom were placed in a protection programme.
“That case has become a test-case study universally on extraterritorial jurisdiction,” Abrahams said. “It was a really difficult case from a practical aspect.”
In his portfolio of successful, high-profile prosecutions, Abrahams also convicted three Tanzanians and one Rwandan for a “politically motivated” plot to kill the former chief of staff in the Rwandan army, General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in Johannesburg in June 2010.
“I had to be sensitive to the diplomatic and political issues surrounding the matter, but at the end of the day the court made a ruling that persons in Rwanda were responsible for the commission of the crime,” Abrahams said.
The wrath of Kagame
His firm line on prosecution has drawn the wrath of a sitting head of state, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who accused Abrahams of plotting to destabilise the East African country.
When Abrahams described other high-profile cases he has prosecuted, the 39-year-old advocate displayed an evident sense of pride and confidence.
“I am a prosecutor and I will always be a prosecutor at heart,” he told National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) officials and journalists this week. He stood at the same podium in the NPA auditorium in Pretoria where his predecessor, Mxolisi Nxasana, had stood two years ago. Nxasana has since walked away with a R17-million golden handshake.
Back in 2013, when he was appointed, Nxasana’s resumé was read out by his deputy, Nomgcobo Jiba. She spoke glowingly of his background as a KwaZulu-Natal lawyer. But their relationship later deteriorated so rapidly that Nxasana asked President Jacob Zuma to suspend her, pending an investigation into her fitness to hold office.
Now with the Nxasana dilemma seemingly put to bed, critics are cautious about being overly optimistic in celebrating the beginning of a new era at the prosecuting authority.
The director of public prosecutions in Grahamstown, Lungisile Mahlati, summed it up aptly: “I do hope that with the new national director of public prosecutions it would not be as short [a tenure] as Mxolisi Nxasana and the previous national directors of public prosecutions,” he said at the event to introduce Abrahams to the media.
The justice minister, Michael Masutha, admitted that he did not know Abrahams before his appointment, but approved of Zuma’s decision to appoint the career prosecutor.
There is little doubt that Abrahams is a polished, successful prosecutor. His firm posture and measured tone command respect despite his relative youth.
But the position of national director has little to do with presenting arguments and gaining convictions. It is about leadership and stabilising an organisation that has been paralysed by factional divisions and accused of political meddling. Abrahams concurred.
One cannot talk about the NPA without mentioning the controversial Jiba, who is on trial for fraud and perjury, and also faces an inquiry into whether she is fit to be an advocate. Jiba is purportedly close to Zuma and has been accused in the past of protecting the president at the expense of the law.
When Abrahams was appointed, opposition parties claimed he was in the so-called “Jiba camp”. Not true, he said in response to talk of factionalism in the organisation. “Under my watch and leadership there is just one camp, the NPA camp … guided by the Constitution, the rule of law and the integrity of the office we hold by ensuring an all-embracing and inclusive identity.”
When pushed for an explanation about his relationship with Jiba, Abrahams said it was one of a supervisor and a subordinate.
“Before my appointment as head of the PCLU (Priority Crimes Litigation Unit) I had, in my entire life, spoken to advocate Jiba for no more than two to five minutes. I can assure you of that. And she would confirm that.
“Because of the position I held – she was the deputy national director and acting NDPP at the time – of course, I was a special director and there had to be engagement and, of course, a relationship developed because she was my supervisor.”
Abrahams would not say anything about the case Jiba faces, except that he believed in the presumption of an accused person’s innocence until judgment was delivered.
While he may have proved himself as a career prosecutor, Abrahams will now have to prove himself as an independent leader. He said his job was not to protect anyone, and that included Zuma.
He would also have you believe that he is his “own man” – and these words will be used to assess his independence in the face of a range of politically motivated pressures.