/ 15 January 2008

JZ’s case: a matter for the courts

The independence of the judiciary has become a key issue after the NPA renewed charges against Jacob Zuma

We are concerned about the tone of the debate around the contemplated trial of Mr Jacob Zuma. We do not wish to say anything about whether he should or should not have been charged, or the substance or lack of substance of the charges against him; those are matters beyond our knowledge.

Our comments are directed to one issue only and that is the implication from some of the statements that have been made that our judiciary as a whole lacks the independence and integrity to ensure that Mr Zuma will receive a fair trial.

An independent judiciary is one of the pillars of our democracy. Statements questioning the independence and integrity of our judiciary are, in our view, without substance and are calculated to undermine our democracy.

An example of this, recently given prominence in the media, which, to our knowledge, has never been denied, are comments attributed to a spokesperson for Cosatu, who is reported to have said: "It does not matter who the judge is, we do not believe the judiciary will be able to be objective. The trial against Zuma is a politically motivated exercise … and he has been subjected to trial by public opinion for the past seven years. We have been convinced for some time that he will not get a fair trial … workers will not allow the National Prosecuting Authority and whoever is handling them to abuse its powers in this matter."

Guilt or innocence cannot be established by rhetorical statements. The question whether Mr Zuma is guilty or innocent must be decided by the courts and not by his detractors or his supporters; so too, the question whether or not he gets a fair trial is a matter for the judiciary.

Putting pressure on the courts by making serious allegations of partiality, uttering threats of massive demonstrations, and expressing opinions in intemperate language are harmful to the judicial process, to our constitutional democracy, and to our country's reputation.

We appeal to all political leaders and their supporters, to opinion makers, commentators and the media to let the courts decide on these issues. We are confident that they will do so without fear or favour. That is their constitutional duty and there is no reason to believe that it will not be discharged.

This statement by Arthur Chaskalson, former chief justice, and George Bizos, the human rights advocate, was issued last week