President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa selected Shamila Batohi to the new national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) for a single ten-year term. As NDPP, Batohi will head the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), which, as its name implies, determines who to prosecute and who not to prosecute on behalf of the state.
The NPA is accountable to parliament with the Minister of Justice (who sits in parliament) having final authority over prosecutions. Contrary to the spirit of the constitution, the office has been a political football, and no national director has ever remained in office for a full term. Especially during the presidency of Jacob Zuma (2009–2017), state-linked corruption escalated, with accusations that the president’s cronies were complicit in “state capture.” Zuma ensured that the NDPP was sympathetic to him and his supporters, but the Constitutional Court determined that Zuma’s final appointment to chief prosecutor, Shaun Abrahams, was illegal, and he was forced to step down. Hence, President Cyril Ramphosa had the opportunity to fill the position.
The president of South Africa may appoint a NDPP under his or her own authority. Ramaphosa, however, as a first step to de-politicize the NPA appointed a selection panel to vet applicants in a public process. The panel then submitted a short list to Ramaphosa, from which he selected Batohi.
Batohi has a distinguished resume. She has been a senior advisor to the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague since 2009, where she remained untouched by Zuma-era scandals. Earlier, she served as the director of public prosecutions for fifteen years in KwaZulu-Natal. According to the Indian media, she is of Indian origin. Zuma and his allies have never hesitated to play the race card, and they are doing so now with respect to the Batohi appointment, though apparently to no effect. More seriously, the NPA will likely address in the near future numerous cases involving members of the former Zuma administration and his supporters still in office. Ramaphosa ran as a reformer against Zuma’s preferred candidate for leader of the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party since the end of apartheid, but Ramaphosa was himself Zuma’s deputy president and thus a central part of the Zuma administration. Hence the position’s sensitivity.
Nevertheless, this episode illustrates certain characteristics of South Africa and the Ramaphosa administration, at least thus far. The first is that South Africa has a depth of internationally-recognized legal talent that other African states can only envy. The second is the strength and independence of the court system: it was the constitutional court that found illegal Zuma’s NDPP appointment of a close political ally. The third is that the process of removing one NDPP and the appointment of another was done entirely according to the law.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the new chief prosecutor will aggressively pursue corruption cases, especially within the ruling ANC, of which Ramaphosa is the head. However, Batohi’s background and previous performance is encouraging.