Oscar Pistorius: Real spotlight on NPA

Double-amputee running sensation Oscar Pistorius is due to appear in court on June 4 for the start of a trial in which he stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in February.

Lawyers for both the prosecution and the defence have said the first hearing in Pretoria will be a mere formality, lasting perhaps 10 minutes, with months of delays expected before the actual trial begins.

Whenever it does fully kick off – with a plethora of witnesses, experts, and friends expected to testify – the world’s eyes will be fixed on the 26-year-old blade runner, the man who made history in London last year when he was the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.

But, for many legal scholars, the real spotlight will be on state lawyers from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

While the NPA claims a conviction rate of 88%, setbacks in a recent string of high-profile cases are damaging the organisation’s public image.

Prosecutors failed to convict police officers accused of killing activist Andries Tatane during a protest in 2011; one of the men accused of gang raping and killing a 17-year-old girl this year was released for lack of evidence; and J Arthur Brown, who allegedly swindled thousands of widows and orphans out of their savings, was able to walk away with a fine and a suspended sentence.

Judges have not spared criticism. In case after case, they have lashed out at police and prosecutors.

“Something is sorely wrong and I can only think the prosecution’s case has been poorly handled,” Judge Anton Veldhuizen said during Brown’s criminal trial.

Outside the courtroom, critics are less diplomatic and express a deeper level of concern for the state of the prosecution, amid what they say is a lack of leadership, budget cutbacks, alleged political interference, and outright incompetence.

The problems with the NPA have been ongoing for years, and include alleged improprieties regarding graft cases against Jacob Zuma, now president, in the period right before he took office.

More recently, top prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach says she lost her job because she pursued an investigation into Richard Mdluli, an allegedly corrupt former head of police intelligence.

The picture arising from all this “suggests a toxic mixture of undue political influence and the incompetence of prosecutors”, says Sipho Pityana, head of the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution, a think-tank.

William Booth, a criminal lawyer based in Cape Town, says the NPA is in dire need of a boss who can take charge and set the organisation on a better course.

Menzi Simelani, the last head of the NPA, was removed from the post by a top court, which ruled that Zuma had acted “irrationally” in appointing him. Simelani’s predecessor was widely believed to have been fired for political reasons by the previous administration.

“You’ve got to get to urgently appointing someone at the top, and obviously the person at the top must set a standard. We hope prosecutors lower down the chain would follow that standard,” says Booth.

“The major problem at the moment seems to be there is no effective and efficient leadership. The leadership at the top filters all the way to the bottom,” says Booth.

Despite all this, the NPA has also secured tough convictions, and has managed to put away enough criminals to keep South Africa’s prisons overcrowded – though the overflowing cells are also a sign of a system askew.

As South Africa develops, the NPA is coming under greater pressure. More courts are opening, more people are turning to the formal legal system, and prosecutors are getting buried under mountains of work.

“There is too much police work, and the same goes for the prosecutors. The work load is massive and they can’t be properly investigating cases when they have too many dockets and not enough time,” says Booth.

South Africa’s democratic transformation is held up as a model for other countries, but without a strong prosecution, South Africa’s justice system risks slipping into an abyss, analysts say.

“The long-term risk is that if the NPA is not explaining to the public why it is taking certain decisions and what is happening in cases, and is not appointing a head who is a strong person and who is the right person, then the public will lose trust in the justice system,” says Booth.

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