Leadership, funding crisis cripples NPA
• Prosecuting authority needs R761m to fill 1,064 vacant posts, including 244 which are critical
SA’s state prosecutions body, still leaderless after the Constitutional Court ruled former president Jacob Zuma’s appointment of Shaun Abrahams invalid, is in the midst of a financial and staffing crisis that is compromising its ability to do its job.
About eight months since President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to address “leadership issues at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the institution is being hamstrung by budgetary constraints and resignations that have left 1,064 posts, including 244 that are seen as “critical” to its functioning, vacant.
Acting national director of public prosecutions Silas Ramaite told parliament this week that “budgetary constraints severely strain the NPA’s ability to function optimally and deliver mandatory services”.
Business Day understands that the justice department has been talking to the NPA about possible solutions.
The need for an effective prosecutions authority was highlighted this week by the release of a Reserve Bank-commissioned report on looting at VBS Mutual Bank, which saw directors allegedly steal about R2bn. A dysfunctional NPA increases the risk that perpetrators will never face justice.
This also comes at a time when the organisation is expected to pursue potentially complex and expensive prosecutions arising from disclosures in the Zondo and Nugent commissions, as well as private sector scandals such as the collapse of Steinhoff International, which wiped off about R200bn of wealth for investors.
The prosecutions service was severely weakened during the Zuma era as the former president sought to increase his hold over the nation’s criminal justice system, partly to protect himself. One of the most controversial decisions taken by Abrahams, widely derided as a Zuma puppet, was an attempt to prosecute then finance minister Pravin Gordhan for fraud, an action that spooked the markets and contributed to a collapse in the rand.
The NPA needed about R761.6m to fill its more than 1,000 vacant posts, with R144m
of that earmarked for the 244 “critical posts”, Ramaite said.
Mukoni Ratshitanga, spokesperson for justice minister Michael Masutha, said a technical team had been set up to address the budgetary constraints experienced across the justice cluster. This team comprises officials from the justice department, NPA, LegalAid and the magistracy, and is aimed at finding ways of saving costs and determining what services can be shared across the cluster.
Business Day also understands that the entire justice cluster has been hard hit by government austerity measures, with court services only receiving R58m of the R300m they asked for, while LegalAid is also experiencing a significant budget shortfall. The funding crisis at the NPA has been exacerbated by multiple challenges to its decisions to prosecute, most notably the permanent stay of prosecution case that Zuma intends to bring to stop his corruption case.
Zuma, whose defence is, ironically, funded by the state, has asked the NPA to detail how much it has spent in trying to prosecute him. His previous lawyers have argued that those costs were a good reason to stop the prosecution.
The crisis at the NPA has intensified since 2015, when a full moratorium on the filling of posts was put into effect. The situation worsened when it lost more than 300 officials from the 2016/2017 fiscal year to the end of September. That left it with a 19% vacancy rate, exacerbated by increased levels of absenteeism, Ramaite said.
Prosecutors, represented by the Society of State Advocates and Prosecutors of SA, raised this issue in a letter to Ramaphosa in September, pleading for him to find a replacement for Abrahams.
Society spokesperson advocate Eliveera du Plooy said the staffing crisis was becoming desperate and “there are reports” of smaller courts not being able to operate due to a lack of prosecutors.
The NPA in 2017 had a budget shortfall of R72.9m and its programme to train and hire recruits has been suspended for three years.