In March 2018, after several years of investigation stemming from allegations of corruption and mismanagement, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced that it would not pursue charges against former South African Revenue Service Commissioner Tom Moyane. But this was decision short lived. A few weeks later, the NPA abruptly reversed course, explaining that it had reopened its investigation into Moyane and was reconsidering its decision not to prosecute. In the interim, the South African civil rights group Corruption Watch had publicly requested from the NPA a certificate of nolle prosequi—a document formally affirming the NPA’s decision not to prosecute. Obtaining such a certificate was a preliminary and necessary legal step for Corruption Watch to launch its own private prosecution of Moyane—which, under South African Law, Corruption Watch would have been able to do if the NPA formally declined to prosecute. Corruption Watch was calling NPA’s bluff, saying, in effect, “prosecute Moyane or else we will.”
Corruption Watch’s implicit threat stems from Section 7 of South Africa’s Criminal Procedure Act (CPA), which permits a citizen to criminally prosecute another person or entity if the NPA formally declines to prosecute. These prosecutions are similar to civil suits but with all the trial rights and potential penalties associated with a state prosecution. Moreover, at any time during a private prosecution the NPA may request permission from the supervising court to step back in and take over the case. South Africa is not unique in this regard: There are provisions for private prosecutions in other countries—especially Commonwealth countries—including the UK, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, as well as in China and Israel.
Many commentators in the international community have been optimistic about the potential of private prosecutions, particularly in combating corruption (see here, here, and on this blog here). And forces inside South Africa have been especially enthusiastic; in 2017, the South African civil society organization AfriForum launched its own dedicated private prosecutions unit focused on prosecuting corrupt government officials, with other organizations expressing similar interest. Much of this optimism stems from sheer frustration with the current prosecution regime in South Africa, a country that has long been plagued by selective prosecution, especially in the area of corruption.
South Africa could certainly use more pressure on the NPA to act; the country would also benefit from more resources, whatever the source, devoted to investigating and prosecuting corruption cases. And the fact that the threat of private prosecution appears to have spurred the NPA to action in the Moyane case is encouraging. Nevertheless, South Africa’s recent flirtation with private prosecutions actually illustrates why countries—including and perhaps especially South Africa—should be cautious about embracing organized, comprehensive private prosecution regimes to supplement traditional state prosecution. Continue reading