By: Alan Cowell
It was a corruption trial that had transfixed South Africa, and the prosecutor was in no mood for mercy. The defendant was the nation’s top police official, a figure of such international stature that he had once led Interpol. But when he took the stand, his testimony — his wife, he said, had accidentally shredded evidence — was rejected outright by his inquisitor.
“You know what this means?” the prosecutor said. “That you are arrogant and that you lie.”
When the trial ended, in 2010, the police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, was sentenced to 15 years, and the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, had cemented a reputation for abrasive, in-your-face cross-examination that earned him a new nickname: the pit bull.
Now, Nel is focusing the same judicial laser on Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter charged with the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend, in a trial that has riveted a much broader audience around the world.
For the prosecutor’s admirers, the Selebi trial — a turning point in post-apartheid South Africa — held other omens.
During the investigation that preceded it, Nel, a prosecutor for more than three decades and a member of the country’s Afrikaner minority, had been the regional leader of the Scorpions, an elite anti-crime unit of prosecutors and investigators. The group was embroiled in a bare-knuckles political duel with other police units backed by powerful forces within the leadership of the governing African National Congress.
In January 2008, 20 of those officers burst into Nel’s home early one morning and arrested him, taking him quickly off to prison on corruption charges that were soon dropped — a highly unusual episode that illuminated the stakes at play and tested the prosecutor’s commitment to his calling.
“Why would you put up with that unless it’s justice that you are after?” said Kim Hawkey, a legal expert and journalist in Johannesburg.
Pistorius is scheduled to return to the stand this week, beginning the fourth day of painstaking cross-examination by Nel that has propelled the prosecutor into a global limelight rivalling the athlete’s own renown.
Most graphically, last Wednesday Nel produced a photograph of Steenkamp’s head wounds, with brain tissue exposed, and demanded that Pistorius look at it.
“That’s it — have a look, Mr Pistorius,” the prosecutor snapped. “I know you don’t want to, because you don’t want to take responsibility, but it’s time that you look at it. Take responsibility for what you’ve done, Mr Pistorius.”
Pistorius crumbled. “I don’t have to look at a picture,” he mumbled. “I was there.”
“Nel is a relentless prosecutor who argues with such intensity and sense of justice that it’s apparent he is personally invested in his cases,” said Mandy Wiener, an investigative journalist and the author of Killing Kebble, a study of another big case involving Nel. “For him, it’s about the facts. He can be very cold and very ruthless,” she said.
Fellow prosecutors argue that Nel’s aggressive manner — by turn sarcastic, theatrical, sceptical and accusatory — is not unusual in South Africa.
But that has not prevented murmurings that Nel may have overstepped the bounds.
The judge in the case, Thokozile Masipa, warned him openly last week to stop calling Pistorius a liar while he was testifying. And the South African Human Rights Commission said Friday that it received a complaint that Nel’s persistent depiction of Pistorius as a liar infringed on the runner’s right to be presumed innocent and to have a fair trial.
For all of Nel’s renown in South Africa, his private life has been kept under wraps. He grew up in the deeply conservative north of the country, around the town of Potgietersrus, now renamed Mokopane. The few snippets about him that have emerged suggest some nuances beyond the public persona of a cropped-haired, courtroom-tough man.
Nel is, for instance, claustrophobic, according to Wiener, and avoids taking elevators. He doodles complex patterns on his legal pad. In his downtime, he teaches young children how to wrestle, the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport said Sunday, quoting one of his pupil’s mothers as saying he “has endless patience and never loses his temper; the children love him”.
Even in the courtroom, he surprised some judicial experts by seeming to ease the pressure on Pistorius at a crucial moment Friday when, for 31 seconds, the athlete was unable to say whether Steenkamp screamed as he fired the first of four shots early on February 14, 2013. The prosecution says Pistorius committed premeditated murder, but the athlete says that her death was a tragic mistake.
“I’m giving the witness time to console himself,” Nel said. “He is distressed.”
It was a moment of apparent compassion all the more dramatic for its infrequency. More usually, Rapport said, quoting a co-worker of Nel, “once he smells blood, he does not stop”.