‘The people’s lawyer’: How new Western Cape NPA head dodged the classroom for the courtroom

  • Advocate Nicolette Bell, who prosecuted baby killer Dina Rodrigues, says violent crime keeps her up at night.
  • Despite heading the top performing office in SA, she worries about the prosecution rate and recidivism.
  • She was this year appointed to the province’s top job after acting in the position since March 2020.

Her office is a top performer in the country, with her team of prosecutors securing convictions at an admirable rate.

But this is not enough for Director of Public Prosecutions in the Western Cape, Nicolette Bell.

“[People] aren’t interested in statistics. They want to experience the excellent service,” she says.

“[Victims] will ask, ‘But what about my case? They are number one, but why has my matter not been addressed?’ They need to see the difference, where justice is accessible to everybody.”

For 27 years, Bell has worked for the State, 16 of which have been at a senior management level at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

She was appointed to the province’s top job five months ago, after acting in the position since March 2020.

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If young Nicolette’s parents had had their way, however, she would have made a living standing in front of a classroom, not a courtroom.

Her interest in the legal system saw her leave her hometown of Toekomsrus in Gauteng to study law at the University of the Western Cape, financed by a bursary, before landing her first job at the NPA.

She says:

I wanted to focus on justice, helping people, giving a voice to others to show that they matter. The law is something that makes a difference to the life of the everyday person.

She has come a long way from her first day at work, when she was assigned to a Johannesburg maintenance court and given a quick how-to, before making her first appearance when the prosecutor didn’t pitch.

Among the high-profile criminals she helped put away before leaving for the Western Cape was Nasrec serial killer Lazarus Mazingane, a taxi driver who had murdered 16 women between 1993 and 1998.

In 2002, he was convicted on 74 charges and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bell was appointed the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions for the Western Cape in July 2004. She was the force behind the prosecution of the murderers of baby Jordan-Leigh Norton, which saw mastermind Dina Rodrigues handed the maximum sentence in June 2007.

It’s this type of violent crime that keeps her up at night, Bell says.

“I am concerned about the murder rate and sexual offences in the Western Cape… whether we’re doing enough. Do the communities feel that they are heard? Are we assisting them sufficiently? Is there that trust with the community?”

‘I try to keep them motivated’

And while her division may be the top performer in the country, she worries about the number of people being prosecuted in relation to the high crime rate.

“It means we haven’t made a difference.”

Recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, is another headache for her which she wants to address cohesively, as it’s something her division cannot tackle alone.

What then, if anything, is the highlight of her job?

She says:

When a family comes to say thank you… [Even if the case doesn’t go in their favour], if you keep the family in the loop and you hold their hand during the process, they understand. We’re there to support them. We’re the people’s lawyer.

While she misses arguing cases in court, her focus now is on developing her team to become even more formidable.

She leads a group of committed and experienced prosecutors who she believes bring their A-game to court every time they show up.

“I try and keep them motivated, reminding them that the job may be difficult, but we make a difference every single day,” she says.

And while she was thrown into the deep end on that first day in maintenance court almost 30 years ago, she ensures that her attorneys are prepared and equipped to handle their cases.

The NPA’s offices are assigned to integrate less experienced prosecutors with their more senior colleagues.

‘It’s our time’

The offices of advocates such as Susan Galloway, who led the prosecution in the axe murder case of Henri van Breda, and Evadne Kortje, the prosecutor in the Zephany Nurse case, are situated between their newer colleagues.

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“You get the exposure and are allowed to ask those dumb questions which you won’t necessarily pose to [me] or my deputy. Transfer of skills is important, as is holding on to experience,” Bell says.

In her day, cases were assigned based on who was available.

She, however, looks at the prosecutor’s individual strengths and considers the complexity of the matter.

Bell says:

Some people are better at commercial crimes, which are paper orientated. Some deal well with children, while others can handle femicide matters well.

Bell is the first woman to hold the position in the Western Cape, and the senior positions in her team are mostly occupied by “strong women – any one of them could be the DPP”.

“It’s our time,” she says.

“It’s because of other strong women who have supported me that I am where I am now. It’s my responsibility to support others in the journey forward.”