The Rise And Fall Of Shaun Abrahams

PICTURE: Mail Images

Abrahams is a career prosecutor having climbed his way up from his first job was as admin clerk with the Department of Justice in 1994, writes LAILA MAJIET

It feels as though it were just yesterday that advocate Shaun Abrahams had stepped in as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). 

His appointment in June 2015 came with a sense of renewed hope. Many South Africans believed that he would be the one to turn the tide at the NPA. Headlines across newspaper titles read ‘Best qualified for the NPA job’, New NPA boss is ‘nobody’s man’, New NPA head ‘won’t be protecting anyone’. Abrahams was saying all the right things to sound off the beginning of a new dawn.

Three years later and Abrahams has fallen on his sword. In December 2017, the High Court in Pretoria ruled that he should vacate his seat as national director of public prosecutions. Fast forward to 13 August 2018 and the highest court in the land is set to make a ruling on the constitutional validity of Abrahams’ appointment. The Constitutional Court heard applications earlier this year to confirm two declaratory orders of constitutional invalidity made by the North Gauteng High Court in December last year.

A full bench of the court declared former president Jacob Zuma’s conduct unconstitutional when he terminated Mxolisi Nxasana’s appointment as national director of public prosecutions. Nxasana accepted an R17.3 million golden handshake following a breakdown in relations with Zuma.

Nxasana’s lawyers told the court that circumstances forced him to step down from the office. The court found that the appointment of Abrahams into Nxasana’s position was unconstitutional. So it’s been a turbulent three years for Abrahams, who stepped into the role as a senior state advocate with 17 years’ experience under his belt.


Abrahams is a career prosecutor having climbed his way up from his first job was as admin clerk with the Department of Justice in 1994. He went on to become senior administration clerk, assistant administration officer, prosecutor, control prosecutor, state advocate and senior state advocate.

One of his most prolific prosecutions was that of Henry Okah, the Nigerian national who was convicted of terrorism in 2013. Okah has permanent residence in South Africa. He was convicted for two bombings which occurred in Nigeria in 2010. Two car bombs in Warri killed one person in March 2010‚ while another two explosions in Abuja killed 12 and injured 36 on 1 October 2010, TimesLive reported.

He had been tried and convicted in South Africa under terror legislation, which allows our country to try crimes committed outside of our borders. It was a case which nearly unravelled. The Supreme Court of Appeal reduced Okah’s 24-year sentence to 20 years in October 2016, a decision which the Constitutional Court set aside in February 2018.

Abrahams’ questionable judgment

The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) has been scathing in its opinion of Abrahams’ suitability for the job. It has repeatedly come out guns blazing, saying Abrahams’ conduct is “deeply regrettable” in relation to his refusal to await this very ConCourt outcome before announcing a decision on the prosecution of former president Jacob Zuma.

The Zuma charges relate to the so-called spy tapes saga and include fraud, corruption, and racketeering.

Who can forget the 2016 prosecution fiasco surrounding then Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the former heads of the South African Revenue Service (Sars)? It was an all-time low point for the NPA. On 11 October 2016, Abrahams announced during a press briefing that Gordhan and former Sars officials Ivan Pillay and Oupa Magashula would be charged with fraud.

Gordhan faced a charge of corruption for granting Pillay early retirement, while his former colleagues faced charges of fraud and illegal spying. Abrahams’ announcement sent the Rand plummeting and bonds slumping.

Barely a month later, in fact, 20 days to be exact, and yet another press briefing was called to announce the withdrawal of the charges against Gordhan and his former Sars colleagues. The charges smacked of incompetence and did not bode well for the public reputation of the NPA. Abrahams was hauled over the coals in Parliament, as he attempted to explain the about-turn in response to the Gordhan charges. 

What’s next?

Only time will tell, as we wait for the ConCourt ruling which is scheduled for 10:00 on Monday. The decision ultimately lies with President Cyril Ramaphosa who was adamant that he would wait for the court outcome before deciding on the position, a parliamentary reply revealed in June.