NPA head confident that the organisation will return to be a credible and trusted institution

August 14th, 2019

The National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, spoke at the sixth annual Kader Asmal Human Rights Lecture, held in Johannesburg on 23 July.

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The National Director of Public Prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, said corrupt prosecutors will be fired from the National Persecuting Authority (NPA). This was said at the sixth annual Kader Asmal Human Rights Lecture, hosted by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution held on 23 July in Johannesburg. Ms Batohi gave the keynote address under the theme ‘Challenges facing the criminal justice sector in persuit of promoting and protecting human rights.’ She said that after almost ten years of working abroad, she returned to a divided and weakened NPA and a criminal justice system in disarray.

Ms Batohi said ‘[t]he depth of challenges that confront us are serious, and well known: Instability in leadership; serious allegations of impropriety (and even capture) against some of its leadership; an exodus of skilled staff; a virtual end of professional development and training programmes. Notwithstanding many hardworking and dedicated prosecutors working under difficult conditions, years of instability and loss of confidence in leadership, undue political influence and corruption have led to inertia in the institutional frameworks of the organisation, and serious problems relating to staff morale.’

Ms Batohi added that since her appointment, she has embarked on a series of efforts together with her NPA colleagues, government partners, and civil society to revitalise the NPA, including the role the NPA plays in strengthening the criminal justice system as a whole. She said continuous efforts will be made to restore public confidence in the NPA, which sits at the centre of the criminal justice system. She admitted, however, that this will not be easy.

Ms Batohi said the next chapter of the NPA’s history requires a new vision, new energy, and new leadership. She added that the appointment of a young Minister of Justice and Correctional Services is most encouraging. She pointed out that during her first briefing to NPA staff in February, she told staff that she understood the gravity of the challenges, and the nature of the corruption threats the NPA faces. ‘I reminded prosecutors that morning that we are lawyers for the people and that at this time the people do not trust their lawyers. I committed to turning that around. I have been mindful in my efforts that I need to focus on learning from previous efforts through listening; utilising research; and understanding the needs of my staff and those that we serve,’ Ms Batohi added.

Ms Batohi said she was honoured to speak at the lecture in honour of the late Professor Kader Asmal. She said Prof Asmal’s personal journey coincided with the story of South Africa’s transition to democracy and freedom. She noted that his lifelong dedication to freedom, equality and justice are not only reflected in the Bill of Rights, but stand as a beacon, and constant reminder of the values that seem like a dream in the current context of the country.

Ms Batohi said that internationally, Prof Asmal continues to be held in high regard for his contribution to the processes that culminated in the adoption of the 1996 Constitution, which serves as an inspiration to all. ‘Importantly, he will be remembered for his unwavering integrity. At a time when the culture of integrity has been strained to the breaking point, and the rule of law tarnished almost beyond recognition, I take inspiration from this and thank Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, his foundation and others for maintaining his legacy, through this lecture series and the other ways you have kept his values and ideas alive,’ Ms Batohi added.

Ms Batohi said that as society considers the weighty matters of human rights and criminal justice in South Africa (SA), everyone should place this in the global context of challenges we face in this regard. She pointed out that increasingly the rhetoric and actions of world leaders retreat from their human rights obligations or show blatant disregard for them. She said the rise of nationalist sentiment, and the promotion of the ‘self’ over the welfare of others, reflects a descent that cannot be allowed to go unchecked, notwithstanding SA’s own problems.

Ms Batohi added that while SA’s Constitution stands as a model for other countries, its promises of a wide range of rights and freedoms, have yet to emerge as realities for the vast majority of South African citizens. She said the right to enjoy a better quality of life, which should be free from fear and victimisation, simply does not exist. The institutions responsible for ensuring that citizens are protected, and that justice is delivered, including the NPA, are failing citizens. Ms Batohi pointed out that public confidence in government and criminal justice institutions, is at a dangerously low ebb. ‘We have a very small window of opportunity to turn the situation around, before all credibility is lost,’ she said.

Ms Batohi said corruption has become so widespread, that there is a real danger it will become entrenched and normalised in SA. She pointed out that for too long, corrupt politicians, government employees and business leaders have acted with impunity to plunder, the scarce resources of the country, and added that they have done so in plain sight, in the most brazen ways imaginable. She said Prof Asmal spoke and acted courageously against corruption. ‘For him, the needs of the people were betrayed too easily through self-aggrandisement and corruption,’ Ms Batohi said.

Ms Batohi, however, pointed out that she would not have come back to SA, if she did not believe that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Ms Batohi said there is no question that the solutions are complicated, and that it will not be quick – ‘but then nothing worth it ever is,’ she said. Ms Batohi added that the NPA has a vital role to play in this struggle and together with the judiciary it is tasked with the defence of the ideals and values that define South Africans as people and a nation. She noted that these institutions are instruments by which the state achieves services to the ideals of justice.

Researcher for the Black Lawyers Association Legal Education Center, Fhumulani Mbedzi was awarded with the 2019 Kader Asmal Human Rights Scholarship, to study for his LLM in International Law in Human Rights at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Ms Batohi said: ‘I am confident that the NPA will return to being an institution that South Africans will once again be proud of, a trusted and credible institution that puts the rights and interests of victims first, upholds fair trial rights and one that is not influenced by political pressure or illicit financial gain.’ Ms Batohi also congratulated Fhumulani Mbedzi for being the winner of the 2019 Kader Asmal Human Rights Scholarship Award. Mr Mbedzi is a non-practising advocate who is currently a researcher for the Black Lawyers Association Legal Education Center and will complete his LLM in International Law in Human Rights at Trinity College, in Dublin by 2020.

Every year the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution offers undergraduate students at South African universities a chance to submit essays on issues pertaining to constitutionalism, human rights and the rule of law. The Foundation enables a South African student to study towards a degree in human rights law at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.