/ 21 October 2008

Doing justice

Enver Surty describes his new job as walking into the eye of the storm. Sello S Alcock caught up with the new justice minister in Cape Town.

What are the elements of the ‘storm’ you refer to?
I was on my way to Pretoria last Friday, having just been sworn in, and the next thing I hear is that prosecutors are on strike over disagreements with the Occupation Specific Dispensation (OSDs). I acted swiftly by firstly recognising that there was indeed a problem. Then I analysed the key issues around the problem and determined what I needed to do. I gave a commitment to the prosecutors that all their issues would be addressed before the end of the day and I fulfilled that commitment. I did not leave my office until I had responded to all queries by the prosecutors.

I also explained to the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority) staff I am also the voice and defender of the NPA and the judicial arm of government in Cabinet and in Parliament. I explained that I am not going to interfere in any way, but will enhance the constitutional obligation of concurrent governance — especially in the area of policy making. In a bid to make prosecutors more professional, for example, I will not hesitate to call the national director of public prosecutions if I get a report about unprofessional conduct from prosecutors.

The other part of the eye of the storm, of course, relates to the anxiety created around judges and various high-profile court cases. About this I just want to state that the independence and integrity of the judiciary are central to my task as a minister. I would say to anyone seeking to attack the institution that they are eroding both the rule of law and our democracy.

You will be at the helm for just six months. What are your key priorities?
The first thing is the transformation of the judiciary on the basis of gender and race representivity. I am not talking about transformation for its own sake, but about the appointment of competent and professional individuals to the Bench.

Secondly, I want to ensure that there is improved access to justice for our people, especially those in rural areas. For example, using the small claims courts more effectively by letting them operate on Saturdays. As we speak there are 24 normal courts throughout the country in strategic areas, which will be rolling out a full spectrum of court services to all South Africans.

Coming from the education department, I support development programmes that will help prosecutors to become more professional.

I want prosecutors to become people’s prosecutors who dispense justice fearlessly and in an impartial manner. I also want them to realise their role as crime-fighters by making sure they have excellent capacity to do their jobs.

I want to campaign to get stakeholders and society to participate more in the administration of justice and crime fighting — for example to ensure that they attend trials as witnesses or report criminal activity to the police.

Lastly, I want to entrench the credibility and the independence of the judiciary.

You have promised that you won’t interfere with the NPA. Is this in response to Judge Chris Nicholson’s judgement, or are you implying that your predecessor was guilty of interference?
I am not at all suggesting that my predecessor interfered. I do not think my task is to reply to Judge Nicholson or to any other judge for that matter. But I must listen to what all judges have to say and respond appropriately to issues they raise in their judgements.

What happens to the Legal Practice Bill, which is meant to get rid of obvious racial divisions within the legal profession?
The Bill is not dead — and there is a compelling need to deal with the issues you raise — but it is unlikely to be passed in the few months I will be in office.

What about the equally controversial proposal to put the administration of all the courts under the control of the justice department?
I am currently in discussion with the chief justice on this issue. We are striving towards consensus on this and other matters related to the administration of the courts.

Is six months enough time to make a real difference?
It’s been a privilege and all I can say is that I will do the best that I can do during the time I serve.