Gerrie Nel: The man behind the robes

Gerrie Nel: The man behind the robes

He's the man best known for securing convictions against former Paralympian-turned-murder-accused, Oscar Pistorius, and former head of police, Jackie Selebi. Now career State Advocate, Gerrie Nel - the tenacious legal eagle known for his prowess in the courtroom - has quit his high-profile position as chief prosecutor for the National Prosecutions Agency (NPA), to join forces with civil rights organization, AfriForum. We take a look at the man behind the robes. 

Gerrie Nel
Photo: Maryke Vermaak

Gerrie Nel's formidable reputation precedes him. Nicknamed "The Bulldog" within the law fraternity - Nel has gained something of a cult following in South Africa in recent years - thanks to a slew of cases which have thrown him firmly in the spotlight. But with news that he will now be joining AfriForum - a move many believe runs the risk of destroying his legacy of an almost infallible career in public service - the timing of Nel's resignation (five years short of retirement) - is questionable.

During his 35-year legal career, Nel (56) has personally put scores of criminals behind bars, established himself as a veritable legal force within the courtroom (most will remember his gruelling cross-examinations of Oscar Pistorius which reduced the disgraced former athlete to tears), and won international accolades for his prosecution of local, high-profile criminals.

From being the subject of countless memes, to having numerous Facebook fan pages created in his honour (including the Advocate Gerrie Nel Appreciation Society) - Nel has established himself as one of the country's most revered - and reviled lawyers.

Nel meme
Nel meme

But there's much more to the steely-eyed prosecutor than ordinary South Africans are privy to. Here's what you need to know...

Nel was born in the Limpopo province, where he matriculated from Hoërskool Piet Potgieter in 1979. He later studied law at the University of Pretoria. Known for his meticulous attention to detail, and fearless in tackling controversial cases, Nel first gained prominence as a junior prosecutor in the 1993 murder case of anti-apartheid activist, Chris Hani.

In 1999, Nel was the founding head of the Gauteng division of the now-defunct Scorpions unit - a position he held until its disbandment a decade later. 

He was also one of the prosecutors in the murder trial of Glenn Agliotti, who was arrested in 2006 for the slaying of mining magnate Brett Kebble.

In 2011, Nel received a special achievement award from the International Association of Prosecutors - for his "fierce pursuit of the vision of the National Prosecuting Authority's ideals to achieve justice in society".

He's also a former professional wrestler - and in his spare time is known to teach children in the evenings.

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But despite his many accolades, Nel's career hasn't been without personal controversy. 

In 2008, he was arrested on trumped-up fraud charges while pursuing Jackie Selebi. It later emerged that suspended deputy NPA head, Nomgcobo Jiba, was instrumental in securing an arrest warrant against Nel. At the time, the Democratic Alliance (DA) said that Nel's arrest was a "witch-hunt to protect police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi." 

Charges against him were later withdrawn in the Pretoria Regional Court. 

In 2011 it was reported that Jiba's hostility against Nel was caused by his involvement in a fraud case against her husband, Booker Nhantsi.

High profile cases

Nel has amassed a number of high profile wins during his career. These are some of his most notable:

Oscar Pistorius

Nel represented the State in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. Initially charged with culpable homicide, the State appealed the conviction, arguing that Pistorius was guilty of murder with indirect intent. The culpable homicide conviction was then overturned to one of murder in the Supreme Court of Appeal. Pistorius is currently serving a six-year sentence at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre in Pretoria. 

Oscar Pistorius leaving court_jacanews
Oscar Pistorius leaving court: JacaNews

Jackie Selebi

Nel was instrumental in the sentencing of former national commissioner of the Police, Jackie Selebi to 15 years for corruption. Linked to Glenn Agliotti - a suspect in the murder of mining business, Brett Kebble - the NPA issued a warrant of arrest for Selebi for corruption, fraud, racketeering and defeating the ends of justice in 2007. Selebi - who was released on medical parole in 2012 - died in 2015.

Derby-Lewis and Walus

In 1993, Nel worked on Chris Hani's murder trial as a junior prosecutor in 1993. The late Derby-Lewis, who was sentenced to life imprisonment that year, was released on medical parole in 2015 while also Walus serving a life sentence was granted parole last year.

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