Jacob Zuma's private prosecution of Billy Downer and Karyn Maughan set aside

Today, the Pietermaritzburg High Court set aside Former President, Jacob Zuma’s private prosecution of his own prosecutor, Billy Downer and journalist Karyn Maughan, finding that they constitute an abuse of court process. The judgment lays bare Mr Zuma’s ulterior purposes for bringing each prosecution: to prevent Mr Downer from carrying out his duties fearlessly and independently; to engineer yet further delays in his long‑running corruption trial and to silence Ms Maughan’s reporting thereon. Yet, today’s judgment impacts beyond its parties. Private prosecutions like those staged by Mr Zuma here take aim at key actors in our democratic life and, if allowed to proceed without judicial oversight, threaten our democracy itself. Unchecked, they allow rich and shameless litigants to take for themselves thinly spread judicial resources, when access to courts for South Africa’s poor and vulnerable is illusory.

HSF played its part in this matter as friend of the court, arguing that Mr Zuma’s own court documents were evidence enough that he intended his private prosecution of Mr Downer to abuse the court’s processes. In this regard, HSF welcomes the court’s clear statement that those who find themselves the target of spurious private prosecutions can seek relief from the courts before a full-blown criminal trial begins. In addition, HSF welcomes the court’s affirmation – solicited by Mr Zuma’s protests to the contrary – that friends of the court need not be neutral to be admitted and that they should only aim to guide the court towards a proper application of the law, whichever side this may support.