With the removal of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa, a parliamentary inquiry underway into state capture, and arrests of some of those allegedly responsible for it, signs are that justice and accountability may at last be restored. The task of doing so falls squarely on the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), an institution which has itself been compromised under the Zuma presidency.
But while public attention has focused on NPA head Shaun Abrahams' decisions to charge Zuma's nemesis former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, an arguably bigger problem faces the organisation. In the last few years, budget cuts have depleted the capacity of the NPA, with dire consequences for its performance.
Critical staff shortages, a halt on the recruitment of additional prosecutors, and limited operational resources are just some of the challenges facing the NPA according to its 2016/17 Annual Report. During that reporting period, the NPA lost 157 officials. The rate of staff attrition since then appears to have increased with a further 55 staff leaving in the first three months of the current financial year. Moreover, 239 critical positions are standing vacant.
And while the NPA's resources have been declining, population growth, urbanisation, increasing inequality and social exclusion have lead to higher crime levels in many cities. As a result, criminal courts in South Africa's main urban municipalities are overstretched, with prosecutors battling to get through their untenably heavy caseloads.
To tackle corruption, the budgets of the NPA and anti-corruption agencies will need a boost
These challenges have taken their toll on the functioning and performance of the criminal justice system. Over the past three years, there has been a decline in the number of hours that criminal courts have operated. In 2016/17 these courts sat, on average, for only three hours and 13 minutes per day. As a result, many cases that were ready for trial were not processed timeously.
This has serious implications for both victims and alleged perpetrators. Victims lose faith in the criminal justice system when they have to wait an inordinate amount of time to see justice served. For those facing charges without bail, livelihoods and relationships can be lost.
When a prosecutor prepares for trial, a series of steps are followed. For example: the evaluation of evidence in each docket received from the South African Police Service (SAPS); consulting with detectives, victims, witnesses and other role players like the defence; and preparing evidence such as documents, reports and photos to support the case. These preparations are time consuming and require strict attention to detail to avoid procedural errors that may result in acquittals or postponements.
Since the Aspirant Prosecutor Programme closed, no new prosecutors entered the criminal justice system
Prosecutors are also expected to assist other role players like the police to ensure that investigating practices support rather than undermine the case. The NPA's 2016/17 Annual Report highlights the negative impact that inadequate training and declining levels of experience among detectives are having on prosecutors. In many cases, prosecutors have to follow enhanced docket screening processes, another time consuming activity, to ensure that only trial-ready matters are enrolled.
Severe financial constraints also resulted in the suspension of the Aspirant Prosecutor Programme in 2015. Part of government's Youth Development Programme, this initiative provided an important gateway for young legal graduates into the field of prosecution. Since the programme's closure, no new prosecutors have entered the criminal justice system - a major concern for the NPA in the long run.
Abrahams indicated at the launch of the 2016/17 Annual Report that a new National Public Prosecutor Academy will open on 1 April 2018. It will train all staff, and will include the Aspirant Prosecutor Programme. Where the funding for this academy will come from is not clear, given that the NPA is unlikely to get a budget increase.
When it comes to criminal justice spending, the focus has always been on the police
According to deputy NPA head Dr Silas Ramaite, the NPA needs in excess of R71 million to pay existing NPA staff salaries in 2017/18 and a further R27.2 million for the Aspirant Prosecutor Programme. There are also 239 critical posts that are vacant and need to be filled, which will require an additional R135 million.
When it comes to criminal justice spending, the focus has always been on the most visible component - the police - which receives the lion's share of the criminal justice budget. Given the slow-down in South Africa's economy, and the R50 billion shortfall in government revenue announced by the finance minister in his 2017 mid-term budget speech, the situation for the NPA is not looking good.
With Cyril Ramaphosa now the country's new president, the signs are all there that justice and accountability will be a priority. But to achieve this, the national budget due to be presented in Parliament on 21 February, will need to reflect these choices.
If South Africa is serious about tackling corruption, the budgets of the NPA and specialist anti-corruption agencies will need to be boosted. Of course, appointing the right leaders to these bodies and recovering the billions lost through state capture are just as important.
Lauren Tracey-Temba, Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria