/ 12 October 2007

Hlophe in opposition’s crosshairs

Cape Judge President John Hlophe’s refusal to resign is a typical example of persons holding high office refusing to face the consequences of their actions, says Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille.

”By refusing to step down, contrary to the dictates of good governance, such senior office-bearers undermine our young democracy and are lowering the standards of public life,” she said in her party’s weekly online newsletter, SA Today, on Friday.

The uproar in legal circles over his conduct was the latest ”crisis of accountability” to afflict South Africa.

”Hlophe’s refusal to stand down, in the midst of widespread accusations of improper conduct, is typical of a deepening tendency in our public life: those who hold high office refuse to face the consequences of their actions.

”Yet the consensus of many of his professional peers is that — in the words of a statement issued this week by nine senior advocates and subsequently endorsed by many at the Cape Bar — the ‘right thing’ for him to do ‘is to resign as judge president and as a judge’.”

Zille noted the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) had found Hlophe’s actions were ”inappropriate” and ”unsatisfactory”, but the regulatory body had decided to take no further steps against him.

Last week, the JSC decided not to institute impeachment proceedings against Hlophe, following complaints he had undertaken private work without authorisation.

Zille said the fact was that due to a delay in passing the Judicial Services Amendment Bill, there was no middle-ground sanction for judges between merely non-binding verbal disapproval and outright impeachment.

”At present, the JSC conducts its inquiries behind closed doors and announces decisions which may stoke rather than defuse public controversy.”

She said the Bill, which her party supported, provided for an open tribunal process to deal with more serious complaints against judges, as well as less serious sanctions being imposed.

The Hlophe affair came fresh on the heels of the continuing scandal around South African Police Service chief Jackie Selebi, who ”similarly clings to office in spite of allegations of criminal links — and the prospect of impending prosecution — which mount almost daily”.

Zille said Selebi saw nothing wrong in clinging to office, even though through doing this, he compromised his office and retarded the battle against crime.

”The example set by senior office-bearers such as Hlophe and Selebi and others … is the baleful example they set to others at all levels of the public sector.

”We are in the midst of a crisis of public confidence in the strength of our constitutional order, especially as this relates to the conduct and independence of senior office-bearers.

”Yet it is the longer-term consequences for public morality and sound governance of a refusal of accountability that should be equally disturbing to a developing democracy,” Zille said.


Meanwhile, the decision that the JSC took on Hlophe was an embarrassment, two MPs serving on the body said on Friday.

Freedom Front Plus MPs Corné Mulder and Frik van Heerden said Hlophe had been given ”a slap on the wrist”, and that they distanced themselves from the JSC decision.

Though MPs on the JSC participate in the choosing of new judges, they are by law excluded from the commission’s deliberations on complaints against judges.

”The decision such as this one, which has just been taken by the JSC with regard to Judge Hlophe, is an embarrassment to us,” Mulder and Van Heerden said.

Their statement follows criticism of the JSC by former Constitutional Court Judge Johann Kriegler, a group of senior Western Cape advocates and the Cape Bar Council itself.

The JSC, which probed payments Hlophe received from the Oasis asset management company at a time when the company was asking him for permission to sue a fellow judge, found his failure to disclose the payments ”inappropriate”, but did not sanction him. — Sapa