Taking justice to heart with all her mind
The picture on the cover of Glynnis Breytenbach’s book – her questioning National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) boss Shaun Abrahams in Parliament – says it all. Her direct, penetrating glare probably encapsulates the fury she feels about “the capture of the NPA”.
On the back page is a delightfully relaxed photograph of the former head of the Specialised Commercial Crime Unit with three of her dogs.
Between the covers lies the remarkably forthright, often amusing, sometimes scary and shocking story of Breytenbach as told to Nechama Brodie.
People who have been integral to Breytenbach’s life were invited by Brodie to provide candid insights into the former prosecutor, focusing on a legal career that spanned 26 years. They include Bulelani Ngcuka, Vusi Pikoli, Johann Kriegler and Mandy Wiener.
Towards the end of the book are a couple of paragraphs that sum up Breytenbach’s determination to ensure justice for all.
“At the moment, there is a culture of impunity for not doing your job at [the] NPA. People stroll into court at 10am, 11am, when they are supposed to be there at 8am so court can start at 9am,” she writes.
“It is not good enough that prosecutors arrive in the courtroom late morning, while people who have gotten out of bed at 4am … to be at court on time sit and wait … for a late or sometimes even no start. Respect for institutions has been lost.”
Today, the MP and DA justice spokeswoman believes as passionately in the rule of law as she did while working in the justice system.
She lauds the Constitution, explains how it was created and declares robustly that “every time we really need the law to work for us, it has”.
“It nailed Parliament for not doing its work, it nailed [President Jacob] Zuma for being the a*** he is and it’s going to be the thing that cleans up the Gupta leaks, the gift that keeps on giving,” she writes.
Breytenbach has been described as outspoken, rough and hard-headed. She swears – “because I like to”. Her favourite is the F word — “it’s expressive and can be used as an adjective, adverb, noun or verb. Its uses are endless. But I never ever use it in court or in Parliament.”
She was invited to join the DA shortly after she won her case against her suspension from the NPA on 16 charges at a disciplinary hearing. The prosecutor was found not guilty on every count.
Breytenbach has been shot at twice — the first time in her car in April 2012 and the second a year later. “By then I had a bulletproof car,” she says. There were three shots; two missed and one hit her car. She tried to run over the gunman.
On another occasion in Centurion, she was surrounded by three men on motorbikes who tried to force her off the road.
A PLACE WHERE I HAD WORKED ALL MY ADULT LIFE HAD BEEN HIJACKED BY A BAND OF THIEVES
“What a f**king cheek, I’ll drive right over you,” she thought, and aimed her car at the front bike. “I floored my car and I hit him. The other two stopped to help him and I left the scene.”
After she won her disciplinary case in May 2013, she tried to return to work at the NPA. She was fobbed off with the suggestion she take “special leave”, but she refused to bite.
So, she found herself in an empty office with no work, “for which I was paid a fortune. I sat there for a year, drank coffee and chatted to friends. A place
where I had worked all my adult life had been hijacked by a band of thieves.”
While she was weighing up her options, former DA leader Helen Zille called and offered her a position in the party. Breytenbach said she would have to think about it and Zille asked her how long she would need. When she responded “three or four seconds”, Zille said
she would hang on. “So I spoke to my dogs, they agreed and I said ‘yes’.”
Breytenbach has a smallholding near Pretoria for her horses and dogs but spends weekdays in Cape Town.
She was raised in Kimberley by parents who didn’t understand her. When they moved house farther away from Kimberley Girls’ High School, she got
a motorbike for commuting, which was frowned on, “and then everyone at school got one, which made it worse”.
She loathed bullies — “I spent practically my entire high school in detention” — and learnt about her Jewish heritage from a godmother. She dislikes the “misogyny of religion”.
“I’m nobody’s second-class citizen, whether that’s Catholic, Protestant or Jewish,” Breytenbach writes.
She obtained her law degree in Bloemfontein, but went to Johannesburg to practise as a prosecutor.
She made her mark early during a child-abuse case. Two children, both under the age of five and both with broken bones, were not legally allowed to testify in court so, she had them admitted as “exhibit A and exhibit B”.
“I wanted the court to see how tiny, defenceless and malnourished they were without them having to say a word,” Breytenbach says.
Each chapter of this insightful and well-written book begins with a quote from a woman of few words and even fewer, but well chosen, friends.
My favourite quote is: “You must never make the mistake of believing you are the person your dog thinks you are.”
The quote that best sums up the essence of this self-sufficient woman is: “Being a prosecutor is not a popularity contest. I don’t give a flying f**k if you like me or you don’t like me. I’m not going to change.”
She’s due back in court in October on more charges.
“They keep calling my friends to give evidence. I say … give them everything. They can go over every bank statement, every docket. They will never find I am corrupt,” she says.