Judicial corruption in South Africa nears breaking point
By Jeremy Kutner, CS Monitor, January 2, 2014
Cape Town, South Africa—Richard Mdluli, head of the crime intelligence section of the South African police, was first charged with murder, attempted murder, intimidation, and the kidnapping of a man who married his former lover.
Six months later came money laundering charges, followed by charges of fraud, theft, and corruption.
Then, in the midst of the brewing scandal, Mdluli wrote a letter to South African President Jacob Zuma and to his police bosses: “In the event that I come back to work, I will assist the President to succeed next year.” Mr. Zuma was facing re-election within his party.
Charges against Mdluli were then summarily dropped by the prosecutor. Nor was that all: Mdluli was reinstated as chief of his powerful section within the South African Police Service—raising ire and intense suspicion.
South Africa, to be sure, is hailed as a democratic beacon on the continent. It features a fiercely independent judiciary and an internationally celebrated constitution.
But at the turn of a new year, the nation’s most visible prosecutors—whose integrity is crucial to public trust—are being accused of flagrant bending to political will and patronage. South Africa faces its first elections without the symbolic figure of Nelson Mandela, and the standing of institutions like the judiciary are getting more scrutiny and criticism for a lack of policing zeal.
In the Mdluli case, the judicial establishment reacted both with revulsion and speed. Respected legal figures felt the nation’s legal and crime-fighting capability were at stake and being seriously undermined by cronyism.
This fall Judge John Murphy in the North Guateng High Court in Pretoria said bluntly that withdrawing the charges against Mdluli was “illegal, irrational, based on irrelevant considerations and material errors of law, and ultimately so unreasonable that no reasonable prosecutor could have taken it.”
"[We] saw it as a threat to the rule of law," says Johann Kriegler, a former judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court who heads the organization that filed suit to force Mdluli to stand trial, Freedom Under Law. "The judgment is a resounding victory for the importance of transparency and honesty in high places. The judge has reminded the incumbents of high office…that they are subject to constitutional scrutiny."
The stinging rebuke of South Africa’s prosecutors and their official body, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), is the latest in a series of cases where personal connections to Zuma have resulted in the avoidance or near-avoidance of judicial proceedings.
Not only did Judge Murphy order police to resume proceedings against Mdluli but, in an unusual twist, a different police section, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, filed a complaint against the prosecutor responsible for dropping the charges against Mdluli.
Zuma himself had 783 counts of corruption against him dropped a few years ago. A special federal investigating unit estimates that South Africa loses about $3 billion annually to corruption and fraud.
There is no shortage of cases where prosecutors have shielded powerful officials and politicians. The Mdluli case, however, is a benchmark for many of just how far South Africa’s criminal justice institutions have fallen.
"There is no political will to subject politically-connected people at the highest levels of government to the criminal justice system when there are allegations of wrongdoing," writes Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Program at the Institute of Security Studies, about the Mdluli and similar cases.
Steven Powell, head of forensics at the law firm of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs and a former NPA prosecutor who successfully took on the high-profile corruption case of Schabir Shaik, a Zuma associate, says that interference and lack of accountability are shredding confidence in South African institutions.
The loss of confidence, says Mr. Powell, is felt especially among the South African public.
"South Africa has got first rate financial services, there’s no reason why would shouldn’t also have a first rate prosecutor," Powell says. "It’s almost as if the alternative is to accept [that] we are just another corrupt part of Africa… We lose billions to fraud, theft, and corruption, and the rot has to stop."