Gordhan must now participate in a farcical charade masquerading as the law
If the top prosecutor in any country ruled by law charged its finance minister with fraud and theft one's shock would be tempered by confidence that the prosecutor had a watertight case. If, for example, the outgoing public protector, Thuli Madonsela, had been the one laying charges against Pravin Gordhan this week, that would have been the assumption.
The man responsible for laying the charges, Shaun Abrahams, national director of public prosecutions, tacitly acknowledged this when he demanded of his critics, "What if this decision had been made by a judge or the public protector?" Indeed. Along with the presumption of Mr Gordhan's innocence would be presumptions that Ms Madonsela was acting in good faith and that she did not deal in trumped-up charges.
Mr Abrahams merits no such presumption. The reputation of the institution he heads, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), is thoroughly soiled by its often politicised and sometimes sinister behaviour over the years. When Mr Abrahams reacted to the outrage the charges provoked by distancing himself from them and suggesting he might review them, he merely added the farcical to the sinister.
Ms Madonsela commands respect because she has earned it through diligence, integrity, and courage. But Mr Abrahams's main achievement since he took over the NPA has been to perpetuate its attempts to keep President Jacob Zuma out of the dock where he should be answering the criminal charges first brought against him at the end of 2007.
One of Mr Abrahams's predecessors, Vusi Pikoli, was fired by the then president, Kgalema Motlanthe, in 2008 for reinstating the charges. They were then dropped by another of Mr Abrahams's predecessors, Mokotedi Mpshe, in 2009. In so doing, he cleared the way for Mr Zuma to become president.
Apart from tirelessly shielding Mr Zuma from the law, the NPA has conducted witchhunts against some of its most dedicated officials, among them Glynis Breytenbach and Gerrie Nel. Despite bullying, Ms Breytenbach refused to drop criminal charges against Richard Mdluli, a former crime intelligence chief; despite attempts to block him, Nr Nel brought the crooked former police commissioner Jackie Selebi to book. Two of the NPA's top officials, Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi, were recently struck from the roll of advocates for shielding Mr Mdluli.
The Ministry of Finance said of the proceedings against Mr Gordhan that they "are contaminated by abuse for political ends." It quoted the minister as wondering where the NPA and its boss, along with the Hawks, "get their political instructions from." He knows where. The implication is that Mr Zuma has consolidated his capture of the NPA so that it can continue shielding him while misusing the law to torment those who wish to stop him extending his campaign of capture to the National Treasury. The courts are next.
The ANC in its reaction to the charges called on everyone "to allow the law to take its course". "No one is above the law," declared Cyril Ramaphosa helpfully. All true, but in this context red herrings. What the NPA, or at least part of it, now represents is not the law but an abuse of the legal process reminiscent of the previous government. Mr Gordhan has nevertheless promised to cooperate "fully and in an exemplary manner". This means he will knowingly participate in an evil charade dressed up in legal raiment.
More than 20 years ago, when the legislation establishing the NPA was being processed prior to enactment in 1998, the South African Institute of Race Relations and a couple of other organisations warned of the dangers of political abuse.
This was when the African National Congress was viewed by 99% of journalists, trade unions, businessmen, academics, non-governmental organisations, diplomats, and foreign governments as slightly more angelic than the Vienna Boys' Choir, and we were dismissed as "doomsayers". Today, even the ANC can no longer run from the truth.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.