Can new NDPP Shamila Batohi survive race, gender barbs?

In the country’s continuing battle to maintain a bold and independent prosecuting authority, President Ramaphosa’s appointment of Shamila Batohi as the National Director of Public Prosecutions is an apt and bold move in the best interests of the country. However, the question arises: will she survive the likes of the rabid racist taunts of the EFF and the conundrum of the underbelly of politics?

In an interview with Batohi many years ago as she was packing to leave for The Hague, I asked whether she intended to return.

Her reply was unequivocal. “South Africa is home. Why else would I not want to return? This is an extraordinary, wonderful country where I feel that as an individual I can still make a difference. And I have the will and energy in me to do it. I believe strongly that I have a place here and so do my sons.”

And several years later, how is this patriotic South African being received? Does her race and ethnicity define her or does her gender limit her?

Or does the combination of race and gender create an even more lethal cocktail of social anomie?

Sociologists tell us it is not unusual in times of intense social turmoil for ethnic minority groups to be singled out and homogenised into a single bloc of unitary thoughts, prejudices and intentions.

In South Africa, we’ve witnessed the steady deterioration of race relations recently. There are even empirical studies making the argument that since the advent of democracy, we have not assimilated to any great degree – we simply live alongside each other, but not with each other.

Despite this, the ANC have made a place for Batohi and recognised her value in a country riddled with corruption. But while they have done so in good faith, her countrymen are viewing her differently. An analysis of media commentary and political utterances reveals prejudices along racial and gender lines. At one end of the continuum lies the crude racial profiling articulated by the EFF, and at the other end lie the subtle condescending comments of gender belittling.

When columnist Dennis Pather advises Batohi to eat up her porridge to be strong enough to tackle the job ahead, he may not know it, but he’s evoking images of Goldilocks and the three bears. Would he exhort a highly qualified and competent male statesman to eat his porridge?

Along these lines are several cartoons which project advocate Batohi perhaps too familiarly as simply Shamila, in the image of a housewife or “an aunty”. Take a close and introspective look at the cartoons dedicated to her appearance and what emerges is an unattractive middle-aged frumpy woman in the ilk of a wet nurse. The de-professionalisation of women in powerful positions is a subtle way of keeping them in place.

At a crude and overt level of ugly racism, the EFF hurls painful comments about her suitability as a candidate, prejudging her professional integrity even before she assumes the role of the public prosecutor. Displaying every characteristic of a “pure type” racist, the EFF link Batohi with Gordhan in a rush to generalise to an entire target group. The ultimate goal is to create fear and destabilise a nation.

Why should Batohi, a fourth-generation South African, have to apologise for her very being in a post-apartheid era? Why should any South African of any race or hue have to be answerable for an accident of their birth, provided of course that they are law-abiding citizens?

A young democracy needs good people to do good things. This tough-as-nails public prosecutor first entered the public consciousness in 2000 as the feisty interrogator of disgraced Proteas captain Hansie Cronje. Determined to get to the bottom of the fiasco in cricket corruption, she travelled to India to meet with the Delhi police to retrieve tape-recordings of conversations between Cronje and the missing London-based bookie Sanjeev Chawla.

The Times of India reported on her visit thus:

“It was like watching the pied piper at work. Everywhere she went, Shamila Batohi, the high profile public prosecutor who heads the King Commission of Inquiry, attracted a crowd. She had the media clutching on to every sound bite and even the crustiest senior officer of the Delhi police and the CBI gushed over the visitor and her grasp of the legalities of match-fixing.”

Although Batohi is essentially a private person, uncomfortable with too much publicity, she handled the media and her television appearances with aplomb, finding many admirers.

But her real skill was evident in her ability to prosecute, as sports commentator Robert Kirby aptly described her performance on the box as being nothing short of sheer star quality:

“There’s scarcely a soul who hasn’t been quite ravished by her inquisitorial gifts, her innate ability to sense the bogus in any witness trapped in the nimble follow-spot of her cross-examination. She has the finest sense of humbug-detecting antennae in the business. Upon making Hansie cry, she simply said, ‘I didn’t mean to do so. I was only doing my job, and I had to do it properly’.”

Indeed, Batohi has displayed a penchant for doing her job zealously. As State Advocate to the Department of Safety and Security attached to the Investigation Task Unit under the directorship of Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mafumadi, her task was to investigate Third Force hit squad activity in KwaZulu-Natal.

What happened in the dark days of apartheid was shocking, she remembers. The faction fighting between Inkatha and the ANC was government-fuelled, and Richmond was the epicentre of black-on-black violence.

“I’ll never forget an incident where I was trying to ascertain from a member of the hit squad if the cartridge found at the scene corroborated his evidence. I asked him what type of firearm he used on the day in question.

“Looking directly at me, he sniggered: ‘When you kill a cockroach in your house, do you remember if you used Doom or Target?’ That was when I realised the true horror of the system we were trying to help dismantle, the horror of people who regarded others as not even human.”

As loyal South Africans, should we not be proud of our human capital? And there are many more gems like Batohi, if we only care to look beyond our narrow lenses.

* Rajab is the chairperson of the Democracy Development Programme.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Mercury

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