New Broom Sweeps Shaik Hype Aside
Prosecutions boss refuses to speculate on the case gripping the nation and its possible reverberations in the corridors of power, writes Xolisa Vapi
Acting National Director of Public Prosecutions Dr Silas Ramaite has poured scorn on the frenzy around the Schabir Shaik trial, saying there are many other cases going on.
“I don't think the trial should be of concern to people because we do many trials, as the prosecuting authority, in our courts every day,” said Ramaite.
He challenged people to spend a day in a sexual offences court to observe dedicated prosecutors at work some of whom participate in employee wellness health programmes due to anxiety caused by gruesome cases involving abused women and children.
Ramaite has taken a back seat on the Shaik trial. He spent much of the first week of the trial at the National Prosecuting Authority’s obscure Silverton headquarters in Pretoria attending meetings with various specialised unit heads. He believes it could be “disastrous” to focus on the work of one unit, and not on the organisation as a whole.
While Ramaite was attending to the big picture, one of the units, the Directorate of Special Operations (Scorpions), was slugging it out in the Durban High Court in a landmark case that could decide whether Deputy President Jacob Zuma becomes president in 2009.
But Ramaite is undaunted by the far-reaching political implications of the Shaik trial, choosing instead to treat it like any other. He is also unfazed by perceptions that the Shaik trial could be part of a build-up to the day Zuma will have his day in court to face corruption charges.
“Whilst perceptions out there may persist, it is our duty to be very careful never to be influenced by public views and perceptions. Public opinion might be relevant, but it’s never a factor when a decision to prosecute or not to prosecute is taken,” said Ramaite.
He treads carefully when asked about the Shaik trial, even refusing to speak about whether the state has a strong case.
“You can never say you have a strong case until you have presented your case in court and have it questioned. We do have evidence, but it still has to be tested,” he said.
Ramaite has stood by the decision of his predecessor, Bulelani Ngcuka, not to prosecute Zuma on bribery allegations relating to the arms deal. “We made that decision as a collective in the NPA, and we stand by it,” he said.
Ramaite said it was “wrong” to focus on Ngcuka when the NPA took prosecution decisions. “There is no way that any prosecution can be the sole work of an individual. Even in that respect, it was Bulelani and his four deputies. It was not as if Bulelani sat there in the office and took decisions alone.”
Ramaite said politics played no role when decisions on prosecution were taken, even though Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Brigitte Mabandla had the final responsibility for the NPA’s work.
“She is answerable for what we do, but insofar as decisions to prosecute that rests solely with the prosecution. I believe in the fierce independence of the prosecution service,” said Ramaite.
Until he was thrust into the leadership of the NPA, Ramaite was a lesser-known candidate for Ngcuka’s job. But looking at his credentials, it is understandable why Mbeki asked him to step into Ngcuka’s shoes, albeit in an acting capacity.
Ramaite was born in Makhado (Louis Trichardt), Limpopo, in 1958. So bright was he during his school days that he was promoted from Standard 4 to 5 at mid-year in 1970.
His legal career spans two decades, starting out as an interpreter and clerk of the court in then Venda in 1984 the year he obtained his BProc degree from the University of Fort Hare. He also obtained LLM and LLD (Doctor of Law) degrees from the University of South Africa all of which equipped him to rise to the rank of Venda’s deputy attorney-general.
Ramaite was the chief evidence leader in the Goldstone Commission of inquiry into allegations linking human rights lawyer and former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza to the Heidelberg tavern massacre.
He is credited as being one of the people who brought the NPA to life in 1998. He was appointed the first African director of public prosecutions in Pretoria and later became a special director of public prosecutions in the national director’s office, tasked with helping to transform the prosecution into a unified service.
“I grew up in the NPA tradition that says we have this new democracy,” he said.
He was one of Ngcuka’s four deputies when he was asked to act as NPA boss in July. “Being asked to lead the institution was a call to service, especially during this period of transformation, in terms of how we render real service. It implies making sure that people feel safe in their homes and country. Prosecutors are called the people’s lawyers, and that must be translated into reality,” he said.
One of the challenges Ramaite wants to tackle is the perception that the NPA is only about the Scorpions. He said there were other units which were doing a sterling job, often under very trying circumstances.
He pointed to the sexual offences and community affairs, asset forfeiture and witness protection units, among others.
“We need the country to appreciate the great work we are doing,” said Ramaite, underscoring the importance of cases that do not make news headlines.
Behind his youthful looks lies a tough prosecutor’s character. His approach to crime is based on the principle that “you don’t necessarily have to deliver the fatal blow to be guilty of committing a crime”.*
He said if Person A ordered Person B to kill Person C, “then he [A] is as guilty as the one who delivers the fatal blow”.
Ramaite said he appeared in the first case, in 1992, in which the Supreme Court of Appeal expressed a view on dissociation from a common purpose. It was found that a state of mind associating the accused with the intention to kill is sufficient to find that person guilty of murder. “And I still hold that view,” he said.
With acknowledgements to Xolisa Vapi and the Sunday Times.
Simplistic Law I
* Of course - and if Person T ordered Person S to facilitate a bribe to Person Z; then Person T (who ordered the bribe) is as guilty as Person S (who facilitated the bribe) and as guilty as Person Z (who accepted the bribe).
Actually, if Person T makes a business out of bribing others and Persons S and Z only occasionally are foolish enough to succumb to the pressure and/or guile of Person T, while they are all guilty of the crimes of bribery and/or corruption, then normally Person T is deserving of a much harsher sanction than Persons S and Z.