Shaun Abrahams: Meet the man behind the headlines

2017-12-08 15:19
PHOTO: Getty Images

PHOTO: Getty Images

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His controversial decision to bring charges against finance minister Pravin Gordhan put the spotlight on Shaun Abrahams – and now he’s been ordered to step down.

On Friday morning, the High Court in Pretoria ruled that the advocate must vacate his position as head of the national prosecuting authority (NPA), because his appointment was invalid.

Read more here: Ramaphosa must appoint new NPA head as court rules Abrahams must vacate office

When Abrahams first hit headlines last year, YOU set out to discover more about him. Here’s what we discovered.

Eager, hard-working, ambitious – that’s how Shaun Abrahams’ former colleagues described him soon after the advocate was appointed head of the NPA.

They were excited by his appointment and keen to see how the prosecutor who’d always been so well prepared for his cases would handle the hot seat to which he’d been appointed by none other than President Jacob Zuma.

Little over a year later, the decisions Abrahams has made as head of an organisation whose mission is to prosecute without fear, favour or prejudice have not inspired the same kind of confidence among South Africans in general.

His announcement that the NPA would charge finance minister Pravin Gordhan with fraud was dismissed as laughable by several academics and legal experts. On social media many labelled him a Zuma puppet without backbone or integrity.

Abrahams maintains there was no political interference in either his decision to prosecute Gordhan or his decision to appeal against the judgment of the high court in Pretoria that 783 charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering be reinstated against Zuma. “Whatever decision I make will no doubt elicit criticism from some or other quarter,” Abrahams said last year.

“No decision will please all of the people.

“There’s no person or entity on earth who can influence me in making any decision,” he said in response to criticism that he takes orders from Zuma.

“I’m not a politician and I have no interest to be one.”

But who exactly is this man who has the power to enforce decisions that can have long-term effects on the country’s economic and political stability? Before his appointment to his current post Abrahams was head of the priority crimes litigation unit (PCLU), a division of the NPA that investigates terrorism and other serious national and international crimes.

He secured the conviction of former AWB secretary-general André Visagie for unlawful possession of homemade arms and ammunition and also successfully prosecuted serial killer Elias Chauke, who was sentenced to six life terms and another 52 years’ imprisonment.

A former boss of his at the PCLU described Abrahams as having consistently been the most outstanding prosecutor in his office.

And in an interview with City Press newspaper in July, Abrahams described his career achievements as “designed and ordained by God”.

He was born in the Western Cape but Abrahams considers himself “a Zulu boy” because he spent so much of his childhood in KwaZulu-Natal, he told City Press soon after his appointment.

The 40-year-old father of three grew up in a religious family. Soon after his appointment as NPA director his mother, Anne, a former teacher, said the only one she can thank for her son’s successes is God.

“I get onto my hands and knees every day and pray for my children, so I know it wasn’t the president who put Shaun in that position, it was God,” she said from her Pietermaritzburg home.

She still calls him by his childhood nickname, “Pikkewyntjie” (little penguin).

“Sometimes he thinks he’s in court and argues with me and I just have to look at him and say, ‘Pikkewyntjie, this is your mother you’re speaking to.’”

Her son was a feisty boy, Anne says. “He was never a shy person and would always stand up for himself and others. He’s the strict one, even though he’s not the eldest [he’s one of five children].

“He isn’t emotional but he’ll sympathise with you. He’s a strong person you can lean on in times of trouble.”

Shaun attended Woodlands Primary School and Haythorne Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg but “wasn’t really an academic boy”, Anne says. He was more interested in sport.

“I’d battle to get that child to study.”

She says she once locked him in his room to study and didn’t know who let him out. She was cooking when she saw someone fly past her and jump over the stable door in the kitchen.

“It was Shaun running for his freedom.”

When he was appointed head of the NPA last year Anne didn’t know it was happening.

“I didn’t even know he was on TV. I was watching a movie when a friend sent me a message saying the president just said Shaun’s name. I called him and all he said was, ‘Yes, Mommy, it’s true.’ And I burst into tears.

“We weren’t affluent people. Everything was always plain and simple with us but his father, Neels, always told him he could be anything he wanted to be. We’re so proud of my Pikkewyntjie.”

Despite his mother’s recollections, Abrahams’ high school principal, Basil Manuel, describes him as “a good pupil and studious young man”.

“He played rugby and did pretty well in that too,” Manuel says, adding that Abrahams went on to play club rugby for the Young Lions, Maritzburg Blues and Collegians.

It was Tim McNally, the late attorney general of KZN, who encouraged her son to study law at age 19, Anne says.

He earned his law degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is the youngest of the five people who’ve held the job as head of the NPA in its 17-year history.

But it’s anyone’s guess whether Abrahams will be the first to serve a full 10-year term at the head of the NPA.

The post has proven to be a bit of a hot potato, with previous appointees ending up the subject of an inquiry deemed unfit for the job or being given a golden handshake.

Abrahams’ predecessor, Mxolisi Nxasana, left before he’d even served two years.

An inquiry into his fitness to hold office was terminated and Nxasana walked away with R17 million. The exact reasons behind his departure were never made clear.

Abrahams told City Press he was confident he’d complete his full term without accepting a golden handshake.

But some think the writing’s on the wall. Professor Steven Friedman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy half-jokingly said on radio he thinks Abrahams “should be prosecuted for appearing in public disguised as a lawyer”.

“Abrahams’ claim that he’s not doing this for political reasons is clearly laughable,” he added.

Judge Johann Kriegler, retired justice of the constitutional court, says he has no reason to think Abrahams is doing Zuma’s bidding.

“I don’t like what he’s doing but I can’t accuse him of taking orders from the president.”

But Judge Kriegler is critical of Abrahams for hosting a media briefing about the fraud charges against Gordhan, saying he doesn’t believe prosecutors should speak on public platforms about cases they’re going to bring against people.

“I don’t think that’s the way we should be running our court cases.”

Freedom Under Law, the rights organisation started by Judge Kriegler, and the Helen Suzman Foundation are challenging the Gordhan’s summons.

“We’re calling on Mr Abrahams to withdraw the charges because we think they’re bad in law and unsupported by the facts. I don’t know what the motivations are but the prosecution is bad whatever the motive,” Judge Kriegler says. 

Read more on:    npa  |  shaun abrahams

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