South African lawyer, renowned as a battler in the cause of justice, who shuns the limelight
If there were any doubts about Gerrie Nel aiming straight for the jugular as he interrogated the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, they were dispelled when watermelons were introduced into his line of questioning.
It was the first time Mr Nel, one of South Africa’s toughest state prosecutors, was unleashed on Mr Pistorius in his trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend. The prosecutor’s tone was stern as he prepared to show the court footage of the athlete laughing as he blasted melons at a shooting range.
“What you can see there is the effect the ammunition had on a watermelon. It exploded,” said Mr Nel as he grilled Mr Pistorius in the high court in Pretoria last week. “You know that the same happened to Reeva’s head: it exploded.” Producing a photograph of Steenkamp’s head taken after the shooting, he continued: “Have a look. I know you don’t want to because you don’t want to take responsibility but it’s time that you look at it.”
“I’ve taken responsibility,” Mr Pistorius replied as he broke down in tears. “But I will not look at a picture where I’m tormented.”
Judge Thokozile Masipa gave Mr Pistorius, 27, time to compose himself, halting the proceedings briefly. Millions worldwide have watched one of the world’s best-known sport stars, who in 2012 became the first double-amputee to compete on the Olympic track, reduced to an emotional wreck. The exchange was just one of several brutal moments during days of relentless but gripping questioning by the diminutive Mr Nel, whose combative style has earned him the tag “pit bull”.
In a tenacious performance, Mr Nel has shown impatience, disbelief and frustration. The athlete, who denies the charges, says he shot Steenkamp by mistake early on February 14, 2013, Valentine’s day. But Mr Nel, described as fearless and fearsome when on a case, is having none of it. Concluding his cross-examination this week, he said Mr Pistorius was using his “emotional state as an escape” from tough questioning.
Colleagues speak of a private, unassuming, family man, a dedicated career prosecutor who spurned the chance of greater riches in private practice. The only thing he seems wary of is the limelight. A request to the National Prosecuting Authority for his CV was rebuffed: “He does not want publicity in any way. He’s just not interested in being a celebrity.” Says a former colleague: “I’m sure he’s completely and utterly appalled [with the attention], and that he can’t wait to finalise the trial and go back to being anonymous.”
The former colleague describes Mr Nel, a trim figure with close-cropped hair who is thought to be in his 50s, as a conservative, stoic Afrikaner with three decades of experience. “You learn your trade the hard way, you learn by your mistakes. You start off prosecuting in traffic courts and you make your way up,” the former colleague says. “The criminal justice system in South Africa . . . doesn’t breed softies . . . .It’s an aggressive, hard place to be.”
South Africa’s criminal justice system doesn’t breed softies. It’s an aggressive, hard place to be
After a series of difficult episodes involving the police, Mr Nel’s performance has reinforced confidence in state prosecutors. The sight of two Afrikaner lawyers battling it out in front of a black female judge has been taken as a symbol of change in South Africa.
Mr Nel was raised in Limpopo, a poor, rural province in the north, before moving to Pretoria in 1979 to study law, according to a South African profile. By 1993 he was a junior prosecutor at the trial of the murderers of Chris Hani, a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle whose killing rocked South Africa just as it was making the precarious transition to democracy.
Mr Nel made headlines in 2008 when armed police raided his home, arresting him in front of his wife and children. He was then a senior official with the Scorpions, an elite anti-corruption unit that was investigating Jackie Selebi, the national police commissioner. The charges against him were dropped, deemed politically motivated.
Days later Mr Nel resumed his role, going on to prosecute Mr Selebi successfully. But the Scorpions were disbanded amid concerns about political interference in the security services and the NPA. “He knows no fear,” says Vusi Pikoli, a former NPA head who initiated the Selebi investigation. “He was not afraid of anything.”
Mr Pikoli recalls a disciplined “nice guy” who enjoys golf and wrestling – one South African paper wrote recently of Mr Nel spending his evenings teaching local children the sport – and a prosecutor who is “relentless” in pursuit of the truth. “He’s not playing to TV or the audience,” Mr Pikoli says. “He’s doing what he normally does.”
If convicted of premeditated murder, Mr Pistorius faces a sentence of at least 25 years in prison. He insists he fired four times through the door of a toilet at his Pretoria house because he believed there was an intruder inside; it was only later he realised it was Steenkamp, a model and law graduate. Mr Nel has portrayed Mr Pistorius as a self-centred, short-tempered gun enthusiast who is economical with the truth, as he seeks to convince the judge that the athlete shot Steenkamp knowingly after a row.
“There’s a sense of duty – a crusader for justice,” says an advocate who knows him. “He would say, no, he’s just doing his job. But he’s so determined because he would hate to see someone like [Mr] Pistorius get off. It would enrage him: not because it’s anything personal but just because the facts of the case seem to indicate the man murdered his girlfriend.”
Even defence lawyers acknowledge his performance. “He’s done quite an efficient job with Oscar Pistorius, but again Oscar is probably regarded. . . . as a poor witness,” says William Booth. “He’s probably been his own worst enemy, but a lot of that has been brought out by the aggressive, sometimes stepping over the line, cross-examination.”
Indeed, Ms Masipa has reprimanded Mr Nel on occasion. But the pit bull is unlikely to let go. He ended one grilling with the warning: “Mr Pistorius, I’m not going away.”
The writer is the FT’s Southern Africa bureau chief
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