It is not normal for a society to be this unequal, hence we cannot adopt a classical approach to our challenges, writes Ralph Mathekga.
NPA head Shaun Abrahams during the press conference. (Felix Dlangamandla, Netwerk24)
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April 6, 2009. I remember the day very well.
We drove to the National Prosecuting Authority's (NPA) modern head office in the leafy Pretoria suburb of Silverton to be addressed by the flamboyant Advocate Mokotedi "Cocky" Mpshe, the then acting national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), over his decision over the Jacob Zuma prosecution.
By then, it was seven years since the South African public first heard of the shocking allegations that Zuma had been on the payroll of French arms company Thales and was bankrolled by shady Durban businessman, Schabir Shaik.
The first decision not to prosecute Zuma was taken in 2003 by the then NDPP, former ANC MP-turned-millionaire Bulelani Ngcuka. Ngcuka, flanked by then justice minister Penuell Maduna, bizarrely announced there was a prima facie case of corruption against Zuma, but that it was "unwinnable".
We would later learn this was part of a big "political settlement": that Zuma would leave the political stage in exchange for not facing criminal charges. Zuma's lawyer, Michael Hulley, even claimed his client was offered R20 million by former president Thabo Mbeki and Maduna if he "walked away".
This was the "original sin" in the Zuma/Shaik case.
During a seminal address years later to a law conference, prosecutor Billy Downer had harsh words for consecutive NDPPs who acted against the advice of the prosecutions team, led by him.
Downer and Co recommended that Zuma and Shaik be tried together. If that had happened, Zuma would have known his fate in 2005 with Shaik and may never have acceded to the Presidency.
Fast forward to 2009: I remember a few faces from that fateful press conference at the VGM, named after struggle lawyers Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge. Downer was one of them.
His reddish face turned ashen as he listened to Mpshe announcing that he would not follow the advice of the prosecutors (supported by a legal opinion from Advocate Wim Trengove SC) that the prosecution of Zuma should continue.
It was painful listening to Mpshe railroading his own prosecutors for reasons that would years later be exposed as hollow. Downer and his team, including investigating officer Johan du Plooy, were made to sit on stage and listen to Mpshe emphasising that the veracity of the 18 charges against Zuma were still solid, but that he wouldn't go to court with "dirty hands".
The spy tapes, illegally obtained by Zuma and Hulley, gave Mpshe the reason he wanted to cease prosecuting Zuma. The heat was off, and he was given a sweetheart job at the land claims court as acting judge.
A month later, Zuma was inaugurated as president of South Africa. State capture and plundering went into overdrive.
Nine years later, a severely weakened NPA will again announce whether Zuma will face the same charges he should have been prosecuted for since 2003. This time, the onus falls on Advocate Shaun Abrahams to decide Zuma's fate.
Again, Abrahams has before him a recommendation from a panel of prosecutors, including Downer, that Zuma should be tried. Will Abrahams, like Mphse and Ngcuka, find a reason to kick this hot political potato into touch, or is Zuma weakened enough to make him prosecutable?
If Abrahams had any shred of decency, he would have waited for the Constitutional Court to rule on whether he should be in his job before making the announcement. But he is too arrogant for that.
With his reputation and credibility in tatters, mainly for spuriously prosecuting Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in 2016 on trumped-up charges, Abrahams needs to redeem himself and may use this opportunity to show the world he is really, truly independent.
That will be a missed opportunity for a deeply-troubled organisation, yearning for new leadership. Abrahams has no other option but to announce that the Zuma charges will be reinstated. This should not be about him, but about correcting the original sin of 15 years ago that gave us the disastrous Jacob Zuma era.
- Basson is editor of News24. Follow him on Twitter @adriaanbasson.
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