Mxolisi Nxasana`s appointment as the national director of public prosecutions in October, after almost two years during which there was no permanent director, could not save Jeff Radebe from a poor score for 2013. The lack of a permanent boss at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) over such an extended period was just one of a series of blunders that brought the justice portfolio under intense public scrutiny.
Perhaps its biggest failure was the slap on the wrist meted out to former Fidentia chief executive J Arthur Brown in one of the biggest corporate criminal cases in South Africa`s history. Brown, accused of misappropriating hundreds of millions of rands from a provident fund that supports 50 000 widows and orphans of former mineworkers, was expected to receive a long prison sentence. In May he was handed two suspended sentences and a R150 000 fine. Judge Anton Veldhuizen scolded the NPA for mishandling the case.
The March acquittal of the seven police officers charged with the murder of Ficksburg protester Andries Tatane also ignited public outrage.
The refusal of the justice department to fund lawyers representing the widows and victims of the Marikana shooting left a bitter taste in many mouths, especially because the government initiated the inquiry. It was felt that the state had no interest in ensuring that the truth of what happened on August 16 2012 was uncovered.
While the department mishandled major court cases, its leaders seemed more interested in playing politics and particularly in pursuing vendettas and other projects intended to strengthen President Jacob Zuma.
In his judgment reinstating charges against crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli, Judge John Murphy said that the prosecuting authority could not demonstrate “exemplary devotion to the independence of their offices, or the expected capacity to pursue this matter without fear or favour”.
A further setback for the NPA leadership was the exoneration in May of its special prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach, suspended on disciplinary grounds. Breytenbach has consistently claimed that she was being punished because of her desire to prosecute Mdluli.
The department did achieve one or two positive outcomes, including the re-establishment of the sexual offences courts and an unqualified audit opinion for 2012-2013.
In terms of legislation, Radebe has managed to ensure that after several years in the making the Superior Courts Bill finally became law. The measure, among other things, reorganised and rationalised the country`s high courts and their areas of jurisdiction, creating two new divisions (Limpopo and Mpumalanga).
He pushed through the bitterly contested Legal Practice Bill, which has far-reaching implications for the legal profession and which has been the subject of tortuous negotiations for years. It was approved by the National Assembly shortly before it went into recess for the year.