Fin24.com | Gerrie Nel: Out of the reputational frying pan into the fire

South Africa was almost split in half when Gerrie Nel left the National Prosecutions Authority a little over a year ago, ostensibly frustrated by a combination of the suspected reluctance and the inexplicably slow pace of the NPA in going after politically connected suspects for various forms of crime.

At the time, Media 24 announced that it “reliably understands from three sources that career state advocate Gerrie Nel will be joining civil rights group AfriForum to pursue private prosecutions on their behalf”.

It’s probably the “on their behalf” part of the announcement that got many people worried because AfriForum, to many, remains an unrepentant apartheid apologist that still seems to find it hard to fault apartheid for anything.

So, for anyone to pursue private prosecutions “on their behalf” would, inevitably, get tongues wagging and minds wondering if the cases to be privately pursued would not be ones carefully selected to pursue the narrow political and possibly racially tainted aims of those who would be paying Nel’s salary. 

From the frying pan…

Nel denied all of this. In a televised interview with TV news channel eNCA, he made repeated reference to the 36 years it took him to build a solid reputation – he used the word ‘integrity’ – that shouldn’t, or couldn‘t, be destroyed by a simple move from the NPA to AfriForum.

But this move was effectively one that was akin to moving from the frying pan straight into the fire.

The NPA was widely believed to be captured together with other key state institutions at the time, successfully repurposed to shield former president Jacob Zuma and his vast network of suspected thieves to go only after criminals who were suspected enemies of the state capturers.

In other words, the NPA had been semi-privatised and, remote controlled by Zuma, taught to master the age-old art of looking the way from the real criminals. 

So, under the circumstances at the time, it was understandable for a respected career state prosecutor who was mindful of his own reputation – also known as ‘the Bulldog‘ for his fearless pursuit of the bad guys – to stage a walk away while he could still do so.

Many will remember that this is the same man who led ‘Operation Bad Guys‘ – the investigation and prosecution of former, now late, police commissioner Jackie Selebi, and later attracted much media interest for his relentless prosecution of Oscar Pistorius, now languishing in jail for the murder of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Suspected of being captured by the criminal underworld, Jackie Selebi was subsequently convicted and jailed for a short period before he was released on medical parole and later died, reportedly after suffering from diabetes and kidney-related problems.

Many have still not forgiven Nel for the success he achieved in this particular case.        

…into the fire

In effect, those who supported Nel and opted to give him the benefit of the doubt did so on the basis of his known reputation as a prosecutor who has always been prepared to risk everything, while remaining within the law, in pursuit of justice.

They respected him as a legal professional who was committed to the ideals of our constitutional democracy.

He had gone after suspected criminals black and white without fear, favour or bias, and he believed his reputation to be solid enough to help him push back against any suspicion that joining the hugely problematic AfriForum would be an issue for anyone, especially the justifiably suspicious and forever-on-the-alert former victims of apartheid. 

He was mistaken then, and he’s mistaken now. This comes especially following the recent declaration by AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel that apartheid was not a crime against humanity.

To date, neither AfriForum nor Gerrie Nel has come out to distance themselves from Kriel’s declaration. As AfriForum’s CEO, Kriel is effectively Nel’s boss.

Nel cannot retain whatever he has left with of the almost unquestioned credibility he once enjoyed if he keeps silent under the current circumstances, with his head below the imagined radar and hoping that the storm will pass.

The storm won‘t pass 

The storm will not pass. It should not be allowed to pass. Kriel has finally laid it out in the open that AfriForum is indeed what it has been suspected to be all along, and it is not good.

It can never be good because his declaration is similar to pouring salt on the festering wounds of apartheid brutality, physical and emotional.

Too many are either still deliberately in denial because it is like a mirror they’d rather not look into, for fear of seeing themselves in it. Some were genuinely lied to during apartheid and have still, 24 years after apartheid ended, not gotten around to informing themselves about what had really been done to fellow human beings in their name and for their comfort. 

Apartheid was bad. For Kriel’s information, it went far deeper than the 700 people he believes were killed. It was a holocaust of the soul. It dehumanised generations of human beings by robbing them of self-esteem; broke them down over and over again and rammed negative messages about themselves into their heads to the point where they began to self-perpetuate.

Indoctrinated by its repeated messages, parents repeated the lies they were taught to their children and teachers, thanks to Bantu education, did the same at schools around the country – black teachers included.

While blacks were systematically reminded of their worthlessness, they were also told that whites were anointed by God and nature to be their superiors who would rule over them forever.

Sadly, too many blacks and whites still believe the lies. Their racially socialised perceptions of each other continue to have these lies as their backdrop.

The self-perpetuation continues unabated in our still largely racially stratified residential areas. 

Such was the basket consisting of the crimes that came with apartheid; the crimes Kallie Kriel denies and whose storm Gerrie Nel prefers to pretend will pass. 

When he decides to show his face one day, Gerrie Nel should not be surprised to find that what little of the reputation he thought he still had has been blown away by the toxic winds that recently blew out of his boss’s mouth.

Only he can come out of the shadows and salvage his reputation by distancing himself from AfriForum while he still can; no one and nothing can do so on his behalf – not even the 36 solid years it took him to build his integrity.  

  • Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.

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