National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) Shamila Batohi knew it would be difficult to turn around the NPA when she interviewed for the job. “The house is on fire,” she said before she was appointed to the job.
Batohi started work at the NPA’s head offices in Pretoria in February and after almost four months into the job, she told media on Friday that the state of the prosecuting authority was even worse than she anticipated.
“I found huge challenges and I can safely say that it was worse than I expected,” she said, adding that while there had been a crisis at the leadership level there were many dedicated prosecutors committed to improving the NPA.
One of the most common criticisms of the NPA in recent years is its failure to prosecute well-known corruption cases, creating the perception that its leaders are more concerned about who is in the highest office of the executive rather than the rule of law.
Batohi, on Friday, introduced Advocate Hermione Cronje as leader of the Investigative Directorate in the office of the NDPP, the unit established by President Cyril Ramaphosa to pursue serious, high-profile and complex corruption cases.
Cronje, announced by the President as the leader of the Investigative Directorate a week earlier, outlined the new unit’s priorities: building the criminal justice system’s credibility by targeting high-impact cases stemming from recent commissions of inquiries (State Capture, SARS, and the PIC), tackling corruption in state-owned entities, and serious private sector corruption.
“I am aware of the problems at state-owned enterprises and the need to send a strong message that those who pocket funds earmarked for the development of our country, and our people, will face the consequences of their actions,” she said.
Cronje said the unit won’t only target low and middle-level officials involved in graft but “address those who planned, orchestrated or instigated the corruption of the system and those who ultimately derived the benefit of the looting of state coffers”.
The plan is to target specific cases that will have the highest impact, although she would not be drawn on which cases were in the directorate’s sights.
The Investigative Directorate wasn’t established as a permanent unit (although Cronje has been appointed for a term of five years) and with the constrained national fiscus it must be financed outside of the current budget.
Cronje said she had already applied to access the proceeds of crime seized by the NPA’s Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) to fund her team. She was a founding member of the AFU and served for 10 years as its Western Cape regional head.
Batohi and Cronje were joined at Friday’s press conference by SAPS national commissioner Khehla Sitole and Hawks head Godfrey Lebeya. The Investigative Directorate will draw on specialists from other crime-fighting authorities to aid its work. Cronje announced two big names drafted into her team – well-known advocate Geoff Budlender and Thanda Mngwengwe, operations leader of the disbanded Scorpions unit. Both will provide legal advice.
Batohi sang Cronje’s praises, most importantly saying she “will fiercely defend the rule of law”. Batohi comes with a similar reputation, which has been received by commentators with cautious hope that she might be able to shift the culture at the NPA towards its mandate of prosecuting without fear or favour, no matter who is involved.
Cronje said she wants to restore the integrity of government by improving the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. “In order to do that, we need to get our house in order first.”
As Batohi has learned, and prosecutors across the country have long known, that’s easier said than done. But according to the two leading advocates, the necessary groundwork has begun. DM