Judicial autonomy in South Africa’s young democracy will be put to the test as politicians and judges eye each other with growing distrust ahead of the graft trial of African National Congress (ANC) leader Jacob Zuma.
As Zuma prepares to answer charges of corruption, racketeering and money-laundering in August, his backers say there is no chance of Zuma getting a fair trial from a judiciary which is still largely male and white, 14 years after the fall of the apartheid regime.
Supporters of anti-apartheid struggle heroes like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Tony Yengeni and Alan Boesak, all convicted of fraud or corruption since 1994, have harshly criticised the judges who convicted them.
And Zuma himself is more popular than ever despite a high court judge sending his financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, to jail in 2005 for canvassing bribes on his behalf.
A rape trial in 2006, in which Zuma was ultimately acquitted, was also widely perceived as a political ploy.
”It does not matter who the judge is, we do not believe the judiciary will be able to be objective,” was how Patrick Craven, a spokesperson for the ANC’s leftist ally Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), reacted to news of Zuma’s indictment.
And Cosatu’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Zet Luzipho warned of violence should the trial proceed.
”People are now angry,” he was reported as saying. ”This time there will be blood spilt in the courtroom.”
A judge has yet to be appointed to try the case in the Pietermaritzburg High Court in Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal home province.
Cosatu and other Zuma supporters claim a seven-year corruption investigation has been aimed at sidelining and discrediting him.
The ANC has also expressed concern about investigators’ conduct, with its national executive committee declaring last week that the party ”seeks no special treatment for its president; only fairness and justice”.
Analysts believe South African judges should be trusted to adjudicate fairly.
”Since 1994, the courts have generally demonstrated their independence and expertise,” said Shameela Seedat of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.
”If inappropriate statements are made that impact negatively on the integrity of judges … it could be seen as an attempt to undermine the set of conditions required for the judiciary to conduct their work independently.”
Jake Moloi of the Institute for Security Studies think tank said unfounded criticism of the judiciary would do larger damage.
”If we try now to denigrate the judiciary in this young democracy … that really is a very big cause for concern,” he said.
Zuma, fired as deputy president of the country after Shaik’s conviction, unseated President Thabo Mbeki as ANC leader last month and was named the party’s candidate for the state presidency next year.
While his supporters claim political conspiracy, the legal fraternity has expressed faith in the judiciary.
”Statements questioning the independence and integrity of our judiciary are without substance and will undermine our democracy,” former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson and senior advocate George Bizos said in a joint statement.
The judiciary has been recently unnerved by proposed constitutional amendments that would transfer responsibility for court administration and budgeting to the Justice and Constitutional Development Minister and give the president more autonomy in appointing judges.
The changes carry the support of the ANC whose armed struggle against the whites-only regime was driven in part by a desire for an independent bench — a feature now guaranteed in the Constitution.
During apartheid, judges jailed and hanged hundreds of members of banned liberation movements after trials that were widely denounced as flawed.
Sandra Botha, parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance that regularly raises concerns about perceived threats to judicial independence, expressed disquiet this week.
”The ANC … must realise that no political party has any place to exercise influence over the courts in order to determine the merits of any individual case,” she said. Ã¢â‚¬’ Sapa-AFP