Why you should care
Glynnis Breytenbach is determined to fix South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority from the outside.
The first hit on her life was in April 2012. As Glynnis Breytenbach pulled away from a deserted four-way stop, two shots rang out. Days later, three guys on BMW Scramblers tried to run her off the road as she was leaving the gym; she floored her car, knocking one of them over. Breytenbach says she was shot at again, about a year later, but by then she’d upgraded to a “bulletproof [BMW] X5.”
More than her ride is bulletproof.
Shortly after the first two incidents, Breytenbach was suspended from her job as a senior prosecutor at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), allegedly for meddling in a high-profile case and deleting sensitive documents from her work laptop. A marathon disciplinary hearing followed, and she was cleared of all 16 counts. Undaunted, the NPA filed criminal charges against her. The trial took even longer than the hearing, but in February of this year, Breytenbach was acquitted of all remaining charges.
When we meet in her chambers at Parliament — she’s now trying to change the NPA from the outside as shadow justice minister for the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s official opposition party — I ask if she’s happy to finally have the NPA off her back. “They’re not done yet,” she says, laughing. “They expect me to toe the line and accept some little corporate job somewhere, but I’m not going to.”
She is not subtle. She is not diplomatic. And tact is not her strong point.
Marilise van Zyl, former state prosecutor
Breytenbach’s memoir, Rule of Law, provides the details of her early life as the only child of a railroad clerk and a bookkeeper–slash–personal assistant in the diamond mining town of Kimberley in apartheid South Africa. A self-described tomboy who loved riding horses and “doing things [her] own way,” she spent most of high school in detention. Relying on an excellent memory and notes borrowed from more studious classmates, Breytenbach got through law school and immediately applied for a position as a state prosecutor.
Court, she discovered, was exactly where she was meant to be. She loved the “adversarial atmosphere” and took quickly to the art of cross-examination in cases ranging from murder to rape and child abuse. As time wore on, Breytenbach found her niche in fraud, where, she says, “unlike murder, every crime is different, and the crooks and their lawyers are clever.” Being a prosecutor, she says often, is “the best job in the world,” as there’s never pressure to do anything except the right thing. “Provided,” she adds, “you’re working in a functional judicial system.”
While Breytenbach has no doubt that there was political interference in prosecutions during the apartheid era, she insists, “it didn’t happen to me.” Her first taste came in the new democratic South Africa in 2000 and involved a minor matter about a pilot’s license. Her second? The arms deal — arguably the biggest scandal in post-apartheid South Africa, with rumors continuing to swirl about the involvement of then president Thabo Mbeki and corruption allegations against his successor, Jacob Zuma, widely accepted as fact. Although Breytenbach is prohibited from discussing the details of the investigation (parts of which have recently been reopened), in the first few years of the new millennium it became obvious to her that the African National Congress (ANC) “was running rampant in the NPA” — anathema to anyone who believes passionately in the independence of the judiciary.
Goings-on at the NPA in the 2000s were a microcosm of South African society. Political appointees abounded and a clear set of double standards was in effect. While others at the NPA kowtowed or took cushy corporate jobs, one senior prosecutor resisted firmly and loudly. Was Breytenbach afraid of the consequences? She says her three dogs will “always be fine,” but she also understands that other people have children and additional responsibilities to consider. Doesn’t mean she likes it.
Once Breytenbach parted ways with the NPA, there were many who were shocked that she decided to go into politics. “She is not subtle. She is not diplomatic. And tact is not her strong point,” says former colleague Marilise van Zyl. But after four years as an MP, Breytenbach says she has found the experience “surprisingly enjoyable,” even if she’s not a fan of the duplicitous “moving and shaking behind the scenes.”
Being shadow justice minister has opened her eyes to new issues, such as atrocious prison conditions that are turning petty criminals into hardened gangsters. “You can’t unfuck someone,” she says. And having personal insight into the operations of the NPA, says DA colleague Werner Horn, heightens the probability that the NPA will be compelled “to reinvent itself in the image of our constitution.”
While Breytenbach says the NPA is “already better than it was” when she left, she knows there is a long way to go. The first step? Replacing the current head and “useless lump of flesh” Shaun Abrahams and his lackeys with some of the good people who left. If asked, Breytenbach would consider returning, “with conditions” — chief among them the freedom to do her job without “fear or favor.”
For now, however, she’s focused on campaigning for the 2019 elections, when, she believes, the positive sentiment surrounding new president Cyril Ramaphosa (“a new lick of paint on the same outhouse”) will “save the ANC’s bacon to a degree.” That said, she’s hopeful the DA and other opposition parties will sufficiently dent the ANC’s majority so they can no longer govern unilaterally.
Breytenbach reluctantly concedes that the real prize — her dream of becoming justice minister in a coalition government — may have to wait until 2024, but she remains convinced that ordinary South Africans will ultimately do what’s necessary to turn the country around. “It has to start at the top,” she insists. “When the president is as corrupt as can be, how can you tell a cop not to take a 50-rand bribe?”