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Ngcobo: Constitutional Court judges must have courage

Jenni O'Grady

Chief Justice nominee Judge Sandile Ngcobo said the Judicial Service Commission would have to appoint people of courage to the Constitutional Court.

Chief Justice nominee Judge Sandile Ngcobo said the Judicial Service Commission would have to appoint people of courage to the Constitutional Court, who would not be afraid to stand alone when necessary.

“This is a job that needs courage,” Ngcobo said during his public interview after being nominated for the position by President Jacob Zuma and ahead of interviews for four other positions on the court’s bench.

Ngcobo, who has been a judge on the highest court in the land since 1999, told the commissioners about the duties that came with the position—protecting the court’s integrity, upholding the separation of powers, the administration of the country’s courts and giving applicants to that court the sense they had been heard.

Judges had to have judicial temperament, scholarship, dignity and rationality.

“[And] the ability to stand alone when the occasion calls for it,” he said in Kliptown, Soweto.

Responding to questions, he said judges should not be above criticism. As with any other institution, criticism should be responsible because when it became personal, it undermined that institution.

Earlier, he said the real power of the judiciary lay in its independence. It had to be perceived that way for the public to have confidence in it. The ideal was for people to say they didn’t agree with a judgement, but would make sure its orders were obeyed.

“That can only be done if the public has confidence in the judiciary.”

He hoped the court would not come under attack if his nomination was confirmed, and if so, he would do something about it.

“I would hope that at least during my watch none of this would happen.”

The court came under severe criticism from supporters of President Jacob Zuma when he was in the throes of his now-abandoned corruption case.

Ngcobo has been in the courts for 30 years with experience ranging from being a clerk to an interpreter, to a prosecutor, before becoming a judge.

He speaks English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and knows some Swahili. He also knows Latin, a learning experience he described as “torture”, and noted the courts no longer used Latin, except for phrases commonly used in English.

He acknowledged English was the language of record in courts in a country with 11 official languages, and in response to future language policy, said litigants should be free to ask for proceedings in a different language, as long as notice was given to make arrangements for transcribing.

He spoke at length about access to justice—not having to walk or travel very far to have a matter decided, the negative effect of delays in judgements, which put people’s lives on hold, judicial efficiency, and the ongoing need for transformation in the country.

Asked what he thought of judges going on strike, he said he personally did not find it appropriate.

Asked by advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza whether he had any skeletons in his cupboard he laughed and said there were only feathers in there, after having earlier revealed a previous interest in a Chicken Licken franchise.

He was asked if he could comment on expectations of judges’ “social behaviours”—none of the commissioners wanted to refer specifically to the recent drunk driving conviction of Judge Nkola Motata, but the quip “sober as a judge” rippled through the room.

Ngcobo said he could not comment on that matter, but felt being a judge was a higher calling and anyone who fell short of those standards would have to appear before the JSC.

“It is undesirable for a judge to get engaged in conduct which may undermine the confidence of the judicial system.”

He ended his interview by expressing thanks for the “show of trust and confidence” in his nomination, and pledged to do “everything in my ability to be worthy of the high trust”. - Sapa

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