"I was baptised Hermione Theresa Cronje!" she exclaims with a hearty laugh escaping from her diminutive frame.
To my utter surprise, the new corruption buster in town reveals that her given name is actually pronounced the anglicised way, as in the manner of JK Rowling's character. There is evidently a lifetime of explanation behind this.
"But on the Cape flats how do you think that is going to go down?" jokes the new head of the NPA's investigating directorate in her dry, quirky way. "I am called Hermione ! But my grandmother was Hermione And my grandfather used to call her Hermi-One and me Hermi-Two and then I just became 'Hermi-een' and then I used to have to tell people 'Her-mi-enne'!" she slaps the table, laughing.
"So it's the Greek version. Not the anglicised version. My children read Harry Potter and they're very confused. And many of my friends kids are very confused. So when they see the movie they are perplexed." This comedy skit reminds me of Harry Potter's friend Hermione Granger slowly and carefully teaching Krum to say her name phonetically in the .
"I hear either. [Fellow prosecutor] Billy Downer always calls me Hermione and a few people call me Hermione and I don't hear the difference, I just respond to both, but I also get called a whole range in-between," she explains.
Batohi and Cronje take charge of the NPA and they're playing open cards
While at UCT, she was the first black woman SRC president, an enormous milestone for the mid-1990s. A fellow student, who worked with Cronje at the student led University court, which heard grievances brought against students, this week wrote an anecdote on Facebook about that time. She recalled how a case of sexual harassment was opened against a male student and Cronje was insistent that he be suspended from UCT.
"The prosecutor was unbending and stood her ground. I watched this young woman in awe as she defended her recommendation, as she stood her ground for the principles of fairness and justice for women, her courage and bravery in the face of an unpopular decision. Now in 2019, this story is probably unremarkable. It is the right thing to do. But there was a time not too long ago when such decisions were considered too harsh on 'poor young men' when men were not only protected but people were expected to turn a blind eye and if not, just give them a slap on the wrist. And there she was, a young woman herself of just 21, a student prosecutor making decisions that fly in the face of established norms."
Starting up new units is part of her pedigree. In 1998, she was part of establishing the Investigating Directorate into Serious Economic Offences and the Investigating Directorate into Organised Crime. She was also one of the founding members of the Asset Forfeiture Unit. When the doors of the Directorate of Special Operations (the Scorpions) first opened, she was one of just three people in the office, along with its head Bulelani Ngcuka and spokesperson Sipho Ngwema. A few years later, she played a role in setting up the Anti-Corruption Task Team (ACTT), a multi-agency outfit established to combat grand corruption. Setting up units like the new Investigating Director is what she does best.
Ngwema is full of praise for his former colleagues about their time working together.
"Hermione has turned full circle as one of the founders of the NPA. She was involved in the conceptualisation of the operational structures of that institution and coordinated the entire process from the Office of the NDPP. She is a brilliant lawyer, a consummate strategist and a phenomenal human being. Although unassuming, she's firm, unbending and principled. Her inputs stood out in the initial strategic planning processes as we had to deal with bombings and the 'highflyers' in Cape Town," says Ngwema.
But like so many other good capable prosecutors, she left the NPA in 2012, at a time when the organisation was captured and rotting. It was a considerable loss considering Cronje had initiated several ground-breaking asset forfeiture applications under the cutting-edge Prevention of Organised Crime Act, including the confiscation application in the Schabir Shaik matter. She was part of a haemorrhaging of institutional knowledge and capacity.
Cronje went to the Bar in Cape Town and spent the next few years refining her reputation on an international level. She was appointed as a consultant to a World Bank and United Nation initiative to recover stolen assets and worked in several countries to assist national anti-corruption bodies to recover the proceeds of corruption.
But then she got a call from the new National Director Shamila Batohi. The two had worked together in the heyday of the NPA and Batohi needed help. Batohi had found a worse mess than she expected when taking the reins of the prosecuting authority. The President had announced a new directorate to go after big state capture cases and Cronje was the perfect person to help set it up. So for two months, she was seconded from the Bar to Pretoria, to come help lay the foundations and build the framework for the unit. It made sense for her to stay on and run it.
"I left [the NPA] very reluctantly," recalls Cronje. "But outside, I was living a very comfortable life and thought, who needs this kind of stress and trouble? I think what persuaded me is, I sat the NDPP down and said, ok I need to wrap up the support that I've been giving you in the past two months. And I realised I won't be involved anymore, I won't be able to be in there and make this happen and I thought... I'm in! So if anything, it was the fear that I won't get to do what I now get to do."
It's a quintessential Thuma Mina story. But it wasn't an easy decision for her to make. Her family is settled in Cape Town. Her husband, a scientist and an academic, has a job there and her kids are at school. Also, she loves to climb mountains as her outlet. That and yoga once a week is all she can manage in her busy schedule. She's constantly on the move though, darting around like a mongoose with her glasses perched on her head.
"That has been one of the big stumbling blocks. My family is very settled in Cape Town. I have a holiday in the Cederberg planned and now I have no leave. I'm a workaholic unfortunately, but my family keep me very centred and very real," she says.
While the activities of the week have been unsettling, she is buoyed by the support and read to get to work.
"I am very energised, I can get going. The last week was a bit overwhelming, I'm not used to this. I was very distracted by my phone and messages coming in and people I didn't know I knew and people I haven't seen in years, very enthusiastic and excited, that was overwhelming. But the minute I start talking about the work it's hugely exciting. There's so much you can do, you just need to get started. It's so exciting to roll up your sleeves and get in there and people respond, they get excited, they're very sceptical in the beginning and the roll their eyes but you keep at it and they see no, it's not just window dressing."
In a closing line at the end of her formal speech to the media on Friday, Cronje quipped that she is not a superhero with a cape hidden away. "I am enthusiastic, keen and committed, and I am thrilled to be back, fighting the good fight. I am equally clear that there is no magic wand, and that we are no super heroes. It's up to all of us to do our bit,' she told the country."
While she claims to have no magic wand, the irony of that comment is not lost on us. Like her namesake in the Harry Potter series, however you may pronounce it, Hermione Cronje is going to have to use every one of her repertoire of spells to magically bring down the country's elite and make the villains of the dark arts pay for their evil.