Gerrie Nel: the victims’ advocate

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“I have to object. It is impossible to say ‘ek hoor die vrou gille’ (I hear the woman screams’)” Gerrie Nel at his sardonic best. (Image: Graphic by Mary Alexander. Background image courtesy of Jonny Ross, Flickr)

Sulaiman Philip

Oscar Pistorius is on trial for murder. No matter the outcome, this global golden symbol of athletic talent and perseverance will be tarnished. While his attorney, Barry Roux, is quickly winning a reputation as a piranha, prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, is burnishing a reputation built up over three decades as a victims’ advocate.

Not that his reputation nor the opinion of others matter to the veteran prosecutor. Former National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga told the South African Press Association recently that Nel was incredibly modest about his accomplishments, concentrating instead on getting the right result always. “He is one prosecutor whose prosecutorial expertise, conviction and integrity is beyond reproach. I’ve known him to be a very dedicated prosecutor and a very resourceful prosecutor.”

Mannie Witz, an advocate with the Bridge Group at the Johannesburg Bar,has known Nel for over 30 years and says of him, “He is a very hardworking guy, who takes everything very seriously.He is beyond reproach, and a formidable opponent who goes the whole way, and refuses to give up. He is a good prosecutor, a good cross examiner, you have to be on your toes all the time.”

Nel is unfazed by the fame, or infamy, of the accused. His career is littered with convictions in the biggest cases of the day; he was on the prosecution team that sent Clive Derby Lewis and Janusz Waluz to prison for the assassination of Chris Hani; he prosecuted Hazel Kidson for the murder of her husband; and was the founding head of the Gauteng division of the Scorpions until the elite police unit was disbanded.

To the general public he is the prosecutor who, despite intimidation and meddling, convicted former police chief and Interpol head, Jackie Selebi, of corruption in 2010. He proved that the top cop had a corrupt relationship with drug dealer, Glenn Agliotti. After the trial the suspected organised crime figure said of Nel, “I don’t particularly like Mr Nel and I say that with respect. I… don’t think many people that I know like Mr Nel, and I say that with respect.”

By the time of Selebi’s conviction, Agliotti must have had enough of Nel. He was the lead prosecutor in the trial in which Agliotti and several of his underworld cronies were charged with the murder of mining magnate, Brett Kebble. In that case he convinced Agliotti to turn on his fellow defendants and testify for the State.

He has also earned the respect of prosecutors worldwide. After the Selebi trial he received an award from the International Association of Prosecutors (IAP), a non-governmental and non-political organisation established to fight the growth of transnational crime. The citation applauded his pursuit of justice in society.

The IAP was full of praise for Nel; “It bears mentioning that the IAP is proud to have recognised the exceptional qualities of integrity, independence and perseverance that Advocate Nel has displayed in the past,” it said.

Nel is widely regarded as a good prosecutor and a committed civil servant; not to be mistaken with the kind that sends you from pillar to post as he shuffles papers and plays with his rubber stamps. The man who turns up at court two hours before the day begins is known to be a methodical, well-prepared prosecutor. Attorneys who have come up against him describe him as a skilful performer in the art of prosecution.

He takes his responsibility as a victims’ advocate seriously. A glimpse of his tenacity, and his dark sense of humour, came on the second day of Pistorius’s bail hearing in February last year. After bungling former detective, Hilton Botha, left the witness box after laying out a litany of mistakes in the gathering of evidence, Nel’s head dropped. As Botha left Nel muttered to one of his junior prosecutors, “There goes our case walking out the door.”

Nel was revived when Pistorius took the stand. Warming to his task he badgered Pistorius, asking him to repeat his story, questioning his assertion that he wanted to protect Reeva Steenkamp, but not bothering to check if she was safe before firing at a closed door. Finally he asked an exasperated Pistorius to explain how he could have retrieved the 9-millimeter pistol, used in the shooting, from under Steenkamp’s side of the bed without noticing she was gone.

Performing for the packed gallery he opened by saying, “What we can’t forget is the applicant is charged with murdering a defenceless, innocent woman.”