National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) head Shaun Abrahams skirted around uncomfortable questions in Parliament about the fraud charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services called on Abrahams to come before it on Friday to explain the decision to charge Gordhan and the subsequent about-turn.
Abrahams used the opportunity to stress the independence of the NPA‚ and counter perceptions that it was being used for political ends.
In October‚ Abrahams said the NPA would charge Gordhan and former South African Revenue Service (SARS) officials Oupa Magashula and Ivan Pillay on fraud charges.
However‚ barely a day later‚ Abrahams showed signs of backing down when he invited Gordhan to request a review of the charges‚ should he wish to seek one.
Abrahams said the fact that the charges were withdrawn should inspire the country’s confidence in the NPA’s ability to be impartial and fair.
Speaking to committee members on Friday morning‚ he said the case against Gordhan seemed strong at the beginning.
“I was briefed by the acting special director of prosecutions on the prosecution. I was satisfied on merits made out on paper as per the briefing. I was further briefed that a decision to do so would bode ill for the political climate and the economy‚” he said.
“The impact of this decision was certainly given serious consideration. Due regard had to be given with regards to making this decision.
These political factors cannot dictate whether we prosecute or not.”
He told Parliament that the head of the Hawks‚ Lieutenant-General Berning Ntlemeza‚ had pleaded with him not to drop the charges.
He said Ntlemeza had contacted him after reading in the newspapers that charges were to be dropped and had pleaded with him not to do so.
“I had made my final decision earlier that afternoon‚ prior to receiving further communication from the Hawks. I decided to overrule the decision to prosecute.”
Abrahams revealed that he had then got a message through to President Jacob Zuma about his decision.
“I briefed the minister of justice and correctional services. I requested the minister to inform the president of my decision.
“I have not been captured by anyone‚ nor has the National Prosecuting Authority been captured by anyone‚” he said.
Abrahams also sought to clarify speculation over a meeting that he attended with members of Cabinet and Zuma the day before the announcement to charge Gordhan.
He said Zuma was not aware he would be at the meeting.
“The issue of the charges against Gordhan was not discussed at this meeting at all. All that was discussed was the Fees Must Fall protest violence. My attendance at the meeting should be viewed in the prevailing circumstances of the day‚ not in the light of the matters related to Gordhan‚” he said.
Portfolio committee chairman Mathole Motshekga said the committee could not allow the independence of the NPA to be brought into question.
“The handling of the charges against Pravin Gordhan and Robert McBride give impetus to claims that state institutions are used to fight factional battles inside of the ruling party‚” said Motshekga.
When asked about the correctness of the decision to charge Gordhan‚ Abrahams sought to distance himself from the decision-making process. He insisted he had no hand in deciding on the charges but merely made the final decision.
“I genuinely believe that there is a widespread public misconception about my role as the national director of public prosecutions. I can use my discretion in these matters on my own accord. But this case was not one of those matters‚” he said.