I'm still gobsmacked by extent of state capture devastation - NPA's Hermione Cronje

Adv Hermione Cronje. (Photo by Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)
Adv Hermione Cronje. (Photo by Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

There is a long list of people who stood idly by, turned a blind eye or enabled the deterioration and destruction of state institutions, Hermione Cronje, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority's (NPA) Investigative Directorate, said on Saturday.

"The challenge we face is our list of potential accused is very long, it's actually impossibly long," she said, addressing the University of Cape Town's Summer School guest lecture.

"In some institutions, it's hard to pick out people who can credibly give evidence in a criminal trial about what happened because they were either complicit or will struggle to answer questions about what they did to stop what was happening."

When she returned to the NPA last year to build up the directorate from scratch, Cronje's anxiety was not that she might not have the skills to do it, but more about whether it was doable at all.

"Again, I have fears, fears that are your fears; fears that the damage wrought is irreparable, fears that the expectations of the public are impossible to meet and concerned at the state of the institution I had once proudly associated with," she said.

Cronje has seen over the years what corruption could do to institutions. Everyone in South Africa saw what was going on with state capture and some tried to fight it, but most did nothing.

"Still, day in and day out I am gobsmacked at the scope and extent of the devastation."

There were a few kingpins but many more mid-level government officials who participated in some way, those in the private sector who took advantage of opportunities or participated and professionals such as lawyers and accountants who were enablers.

"Few people put up their hand and said, 'I won't allow this, not on my watch'."

Apartheid legacy

Cronje said the legacy of apartheid played a role.

Policies were put in place as a result of social objectives to increase black representation in institutions and make them more representative of the country, as well as reflecting the needs of the whole country.

The policies left a field for discretion to be exercised, by putting in place criteria other than merit and price and favouring those who met developmental objectives.

The corrupt perverted the procurement function and created organisations that purported to address these needs, effectively setting up pipelines to procure money.

Racial antipathy

Cronje said there was also racial antipathy.

"So, you have black people, suspicious, frustrated that they don't get taken seriously, that white people always feel they have the skills, they are better equipped, better.

"So, when they see another black person behaving in ways that know is wrong, they are less likely to call it out because then they are siding with the white people who victimised them, as they feel anyway."

It was this "uniquely South African problem" that allowed people not to call out greed or rampant looting.

'We know who we are after'

The packed lecture theatre laughed when Cronje said her disclaimers to addressing them was that she was not going to tell them who was next to be prosecuted, what the charges were or even who was on the list.

"We know who we are after and we will prosecute them. We have begun and will continue to work our way at it," she said.

"It's happening but happening while we are fixing the ship and the ship is so broken that that is a consuming exercise. Not just broken, it's rotten in places and there are some saboteurs around who are undoing the work we are trying to do."

She said they were forging a good team and slowly gaining ground.

"[We] require all of you to get off your butts and look at how you can actively support, instead of actively watching and waiting to see what is happening next."

Her unit was working methodically and carefully as it expected anything it did would end up in constitutional challenges.

"Most days I am cautiously optimistic. Some days I am wildly optimistic and think I have the best job in the world. I think we all keep going because there are no other options."

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