It is a shame Shamila Batohi, the first-ever woman to hold the post of national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), will forever be associated with and even remembered because of Hansie Cronjé.
A young prosecutor then, Batohi led the cross-examination of South Africa’s former national cricket captain in the King Commission. She broke the man, who was still considered a national hero, as the full extent of the international cricket match-fixing scandal and Cronjé’s central role in it was dawning on the country.
When she was done with him, he had been reduced to tears, not to mention one of the most infamously implausible defences in the annals of South African legal history. (I will not repeat the phrase. You know it.) It was a performance that earned her huge admiration but ended Cronjé’s association with cricket at any level. It would be no exaggeration to say that in those months Batohi emerged as post-apartheid South Africa’s first celebrity lawyer.
It is remarkable now to think back to that period in South Africa’s emergence as a new nation. Perhaps driven by the hindsight of what has happened to our country over the past 10 years, I am struck by the thought of how innocent we all were. We would soon come to realise the full horror of Cronjé’s betrayal of our trust, but even at that moment we seemed to view the world — newly opened and seemingly welcoming to us — through Mandela-tinted glasses.
Even our crooks seemed like novices and innocents led astray by more practised brigands from overseas, in Hansie’s case the mysterious Indian bookie and fixer, Sanjay Chawla. Prosecutors were not household names back then. We had no cause to valorise them when they did their jobs, or condemn them for the opposite. How would we even have known the difference when we knew nothing about state capture, corporate corruption, Steinhoff, VBS, gender violence, the rape of infants and dolus eventualis?
It is a shame that we remember Batohi for that performance, because it freezes her, and us, in that moment of fragile, straining innocence, that last period before the flood.
But before us stands a woman who has since led the prosecutorial service in KwaZulu-Natal when political and taxi violence (which are sometimes the same thing) began to take a grip in that province. A woman who has for a decade served at the International Criminal Court, confronting humanity’s worst human rights violations, facing down every conceivable crime committed in the pursuit of power, in the service of tribalist instincts, and in the name of hatred and intolerance.
She is no longer innocent and neither are we. How could we be, after a decade of betrayals far worse than fixed Test results?
What a mammoth task Batohi now faces on her return home in February. Jacob Zuma — who had just been elected president when she left these shores and who, not least, would suborn the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) she will head — will argue for a permanent stay of prosecution on corruption charges stemming from the 1999 arms deal. (Yes, you’re right. We were never really that innocent.)
But Zuma’s arms deal-related prosecution is just the opening act, the aperitif to be followed by a somewhat scary, overwhelming and still only just emerging main course. If she serves out even half her term, Batohi will be the NDPP who begins the state capture prosecutions.
It is likely that Judge Raymond Zondo, who presides over the commission investigating state capture during Zuma’s time in office, will make recommendations that will necessitate a host of prosecutions, from Zuma himself to his Gupta handlers, Cabinet ministers and maybe hundreds of lieutenants who facilitated corruption for nearly 10 years.
As if that is not enough, South Africans now have the distinct view that corporate malfeasance is out of hand, and the lenient treatment of it in the past has meant that its practitioners have only grown bolder over the years.
It remains a sore point that not a single company executive has personally faced any consequences arising from revelations that construction companies colluded to defraud the state of billions of rands in the construction boom ahead of the 2010 World Cup. That was quickly followed by the exposé of a bread price cartel, which robbed not just the state but also citizens trying to put the most basic food staple on their tables.
This year alone, we have been treated to tales of the looting of a mutual bank to the detriment of thousands of poor depositors and the national fiscus and witnessed the destruction of billions in investment funds as one of the country’s largest conglomerates was brought to its knees by fraud.
Meanwhile, the smuggling cartels on whose behalf our revenue authority had to be destroyed are still in rude health, to the extent of providing high-end accommodation for the families of supposedly pro-poor politicians. All this has led to a growing public clamour to see more executives in leg irons.
Batohi will need to show that she does not view corruption only through one prism and will need to go after the corrupter as vigorously as she goes after the corrupted. For South Africa even to begin to rebuild itself, the era of impunity must end. There are few people better placed to signal that end than the NDPP.
Besides state capture and corporate crime, a third area of focus that South Africans will watch closely is the uncontrollable scourge of gender-based violence. Despite all the campaigns, all the fighting talk and all the political posturing, the situation in South Africa is getting worse, not better.
As we speak, a pastor stands trial for the rape of girls as young as 14, and a man faces murder charges for dousing his girlfriend in petrol and setting her alight. Such horror stories have become our daily news diet. South African women cannot continue to live — and die — like this. It must be stopped, and one of the best ways to signal our intention to stop it would be to create a special gender violence prosecutorial unit within the NPA.
To be sure, it probably is not fair to put all of that on Batohi’s shoulders. Some of these are political and even social problems. But that is what we are. We are now a people who make heroes of lawyers because of what we have allowed to be done to us.
Right now, Shamila Batohi has been chosen as our latest hero, perhaps even our last. Good luck to her. It has become a far more complex country — a worse country, I’m afraid — since the devil made Hansie do it.
Vukani Mde is a partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy