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23 June 2017 21:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Spy tapes: Still no reason to drop charges

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

Extracts from the so-called “spy tapes” (for some inexplicable reason the complete version has not yet been made available) reveal that former Scorpions head Leonard McCarthy is both an inveterate gossip and a staunch Thabo Mbeki supporter. What the tapes do not provide are credible legal reasons for dropping more than 700 criminal charges against President Jacob Zuma. Here is why.

The practice of appointing politicians or politically connected individuals to leadership positions in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has seriously dented the credibility of the NPA. This politicisation of the NPA (as the spy tapes demonstrate, this process started long before the election of Jacob Zuma as president) has thus eroded its independence, its credibility and its effectiveness.

It is now inevitable that the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) (or the relevant Director of Public Prosecutions) who decides to charge or to drop charges against a politician or a politically connected businessman or woman will be accused of political motives.

When a politician is charged with any crime, I almost always suspect – rightly or wrongly – that said politician must have fallen out with the faction aligned to the president. (In the case of Julius Malema, he fell out with the faction aligned to the president and was subsequently kicked out of the party.) When serious accusations of criminality are made against a politician or businessman or woman and he or she is not charged or charges against him or her are dropped, I almost always suspect – again, rightly or wrongly – that this must be because of political interference in the NPA.

This does not mean that all allegations of corruption or fraud levelled at a politician or a politically connected businessman or woman holds water. Neither does it mean that those politicians and politically connected individuals who are charged have not acted in contravention of the law and that they should not be convicted and imprisoned for corruption. But sadly, this is not how the public discourse operates. Partly because of the politicisation of the NPA, some unscrupulous (but guilty) individuals use accusations of political conspiracy to avoid both criminal accountability and public censure.

In paranoid South Africa, the first thing a politician or controversial businessman or woman accused of a crime will do will be to allege that the allegations or criminal charges brought against him or her were due to a “political conspiracy”. Interestingly enough, few people fingered for corruption or other crimes ever claim that the evidence procured against them were fabricated. The logic seems to be that if political motives animated an investigation or a prosecution, it matters not that the accused committed the crimes. A political motive magically erases the corruption and the bribery and renders the accused innocent of all wrongdoing.

As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) pointed out in 2009 in National Director of Public Prosecutions v Zuma when it overturned the judgment of Nicholson J (which itself was used as a pretext to remove then President Thabo Mbeki from office) “it is generally accepted that any prosecution authority ought to be free from executive or political control”, but “this was and is not necessarily the norm in Anglo-American countries”. In many countries the Attorney-General (called the NDPP in South Africa) is a political appointee – often at ministerial level – but is nevertheless required to act without any interference from the executive.

In South Africa, the position is not much different. The NPA is headed by a NDPP who is a political appointee (appointed by the president for a fixed term) and although section 179 of the Constitution states that national legislation must ensure that the NPA exercises its functions without fear, favour or prejudice, it also states that the Minister of Justice must exercise final responsibility over the NPA. The NDPP must also determine a prosecution policy (in terms of which decisions to charge or to drop charges against suspects should be made) with the concurrence of the Minister of Justice. As the SCA stated in the Zuma judgment:

“These provisions may appear to conflict but, as the Namibian Supreme Court held in relation to comparable provisions in its Constitution, they are not incompatible. It held… that although the Minister may not instruct the NPA to prosecute or to decline to prosecute or to terminate a pending prosecution, the Minister is entitled to be kept informed in respect of all prosecutions initiated or to be initiated which might arouse public interest or involve important aspects of legal or prosecutorial authority.”

This means that members of the prosecuting authority (including the politically appointed NDPP) must serve “impartially” and must exercise, carry out or perform their powers, duties and functions “in good faith and without fear, favour or prejudice” subject only to the Constitution and the law. At the same time the NDPP has a duty when so requested to keep the Minister of Justice informed about his or her work. However, the Minister has no power to interfere in prosecutorial decisions of the NDPP or any other member of the NPA.

Moreover, the NPA Act prohibits anyone (including the minister or the president) from interfering “improperly” with the NPA in the performance of its duties and functions. If the minister or anyone else were to interfere in prosecutorial decisions they would be committing a criminal offence.

As the SCA pointed out, the Constitution prohibits members of the NPA (including the NDPP) from taking account of political considerations when making prosecutorial decisions and also prohibits the Minister of Justice or any other member of the executive from interfering with a decision to prosecute or not to prosecute a suspect.

Where politicians or politically aligned individuals like Leonard McCarthy, Bulelani Ngcuka or Menzi Simelane are appointed to the leadership of the NPA, the temptation will be great to blur these lines and to take account of political considerations when making prosecutorial decisions. After Vusi Pikoli was fired for not taking into account political considerations when charging Jackie Selebi, NPA bosses (even those without strong political loyalties) must be acutely aware that their careers may be terminated if they stick to their principles and follow the Constitution. More worryingly, even where the lines between the political considerations and prosecutorial considerations are not blurred, the perception will inevitably arise that political interference occurred when a controversial prosecutorial decision is made.

But what happens if – as was the case with the prosecution of Jacob Zuma – some members of the NPA who may or may not have been involved in any decisions about his prosecution displayed a clear bias against him?

Recall that Mr Zuma (as he then was) and his lawyers never argued that there were no legal grounds to prosecute Zuma. Nor did they argue that all the evidence against him were fabricated or invented as part of a political conspiracy to frame him for corruption. Although they argued that they would try and block the admissibility of certain evidence (including the “encrypted fax” which demonstrated that a bribe was solicited on behalf of Zuma), Mr Zuma never argued that he had not received any money and that he had not done any favours for those from whom he received money. Instead he argued on procedural grounds that despite the evidence he could not receive a fair trial.

The SCA in its Zuma judgment was pretty clear that such arguments would seldom be of any legal relevance. The SCA pointed out that a prosecution could never be used solely to achieve an “ulterior purpose”. For example, prosecuting a person without any prospect of securing a conviction with the sole purpose of putting him out of business would be unacceptable. But where credible evidence existed that might secure a conviction and where the purpose of the prosecution was at least in part to secure such a conviction, this would not taint the prosecution.

“A prosecution is not wrongful merely because it is brought for an improper purpose. It will only be wrongful if, in addition, reasonable and probable grounds for prosecuting are absent, something not alleged by Mr Zuma and which in any event can only be determined once criminal proceedings have been concluded. The motive behind the prosecution is irrelevant because, as Schreiner JA said in connection with arrests, the best motive does not cure an otherwise illegal arrest and the worst motive does not render an otherwise legal arrest illegal. The same applies to prosecutions.”

In the Zuma judgment (written before the so called spy tapes came to light) the SCA stated that there was no “ulterior purpose” in prosecuting Zuma and the prosecution could thus not be tainted. The spy tapes did not change this because as the SCA stated in rejecting Zuma’s argument that the prosecution must be set aside because it was tainted by a political motive:

“In the absence of evidence that the prosecution of Mr Zuma was not intended to obtain a conviction the reliance on this line of authority is misplaced as was the focus on motive.”

No one has ever argued that Zuma was prosecuted without the intention of securing a conviction. This means that the reasons offered by the then acting NDPP for dropping charges against Jacob Zuma do not seem to be in line with the law and may well be irrational. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that, in terms of the Constitution, the prosecution policy must be observed in the prosecution process. When deciding to prosecute or not to prosecute or to drop charges against a suspect, the decision-maker must do so in compliance with the prosecution policy.

The prosecution policy lists a range of factors prosecutors should take into account when deciding whether or not to institute a prosecution: the strength of the state’s case, the admissibility of the state’s evidence, the credibility of the state’s witness, the strength of the defence’s case, and the extent to which the prosecution would be in the public interest. Curiously, the acting NDPP did not refer to this prosecution policy when he announced the dropping of the charges against Jacob Zuma. This means that the policy that – constitutionally – ought to have guided the decision to drop charges against President Zuma was not considered at all.

This means that it will be difficult for the NPA to convince a court that the dropping of charges against President Zuma was legally valid. Of course, whether too much time has now elapsed since the commission of the alleged crimes to allow for a fair trial is another question. But that would be a question for a court (and not the NPA) to decide. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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