Spy Tapes, Scorpions, and Bribe Solicitation: Prosecutorial Decisions in South Africa

South African President Jacob Zuma is currently embroiled in a corruption investigation associated with the so-called Nkandla scandal. This is hardly the first time President Zuma has had to contend with corruption accusations, but he as so far managed to escape unscathed. One of those earlier incidents involved allegations that President Zuma received bribes from a defense contractor, but the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) dropped its investigation of those allegations in 2009. In explaining his decision to drop the investigation, Mokotedi Mpshe, the acting head of the NPA, cited “collusion between the former heads of the Directorate of Special Operations (DSO) and NPA to manipulate the prosecutorial process.” The evidence of this ostensible collusion? Wiretapped recordings of conversations between a former NPA head and then-DSO head Leonard McCarthy, who was responsible for directing some of the investigation into President Zuma. Mpshe claimed that the recordings, which have since become known as the “spy tapes,” showed an “abuse of process” via interference in the timing of the prosecution, forcing him to end the investigation.

This 2009 case has been in the news again, both because of the current corruption allegations against President Zuma, and also because the South African Supreme Court of Appeals recently ordered the NPA to hand over the spy tapes and associated documents to the opposition Democratic Alliance. Although the audio recordings themselves have not been made public, excerpts from their transcripts can be read online. From these excerpts (which are more extensive than those previously released in 2009), it appears the NPA’s decision to drop the case against Zuma was wrong-headed.

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