'Judges must know their place'

Judges should know their place and watch their mouths if they want a good relationship with the ruling party, says the new chairperson of Parliament’s justice committee.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Ngoako Ramatlhodi admitted that the ANC’s difficult relationship with the judiciary is not sustainable and needs fixing. “We are interested in working with the judiciary, but we insist they must operate in terms of the Constitution and we will give the judiciary the space to do this.”

Ramatlhodi was recently appointed to the Judicial Service Commission, the body set up to appoint judges.

In straightening the ruffled feathers in the judiciary because of the public spats between judges and the ruling party, Ramatlhodi says the ANC hopes to emulate a model adopted when the ANC was working with judges in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and during the elections.

“There was a spirit of camaraderie that we hope to continue. We have to be candid with one another. What is not helpful are public spats. We are dealing with adult views and it would be more useful if conveyed in a particular way. It doesn’t help for us to run to the newspapers. We want to move forward and will make special efforts to do so.”

KwaZulu-Natal Judge Herbert Msimang, who serves as a commissioner of the IEC, previously struck Zuma’s corruption case from the roll of the Pietermaritzburg High Court. In September 2006 he became the hero of Zuma supporters in the ANC when he said the case was “limping from one disaster to another” and decided that it should be scrapped.

On the subject of how the ANC will deal with the issue of judicial independence Ramatlhodi said that if judges stick to their corners, the ANC will do the same and not threaten their independence in any way.

“There is no misunderstanding when it comes to judicial independence. All we would ask is that judges exercise their mandate. If you go to a social club and make pronouncements, that is not helpful,” Ramatlhodi said, referring to comments made by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke at his birthday party shortly before the ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane.

Moseneke was quoted saying that the future of the country did not lie with the delegates at Polokwane, but with the electorate at large.

Tensions between the ruling party and the judiciary were fuelled by the prolonged saga involving charges against Zuma on 16 counts of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money-laundering. The charges were dropped eventually by the acting national director of public prosecutions (NDPP), Mokotedi Mpshe.

“Some individuals in the judiciary elicited negative responses [from the ANC] when [they made] comments about the president taking the legal route,” Ramatlhodi said. “We felt there was an irritation on the part of the presiding officers of the courts about [the delays in the court case], they were calling it delaying tactics.”

Zuma “had a feeling that there were some who felt that he was abusing the court processes while he was exercising his rights. We must understand that none of us is above the law, regardless of the position that we occupy, including the judicial officers.”

Ramatlhodi said Zuma’s punctual appearance at all his court appointments should be seen as a sign of respect for the law and the judiciary. He expressed surprise at the view that “the ANC is a threat to the rule of law”.

“What amazes me about that is that the South African population has accepted that the ANC is anti-constitutional, while at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission some presidents were called to account, but they simply refused. Yet when Jacob Zuma had to go to court, every time he was told he should be there, he was there.”

Ramatlhodi admitted the tensions between the party and the judges left a mark on both. “We went through a very special, but very painful period where we all wanted to hurt each other. That must change now.”

The first test of this new relationship will be the appointment of new Constitutional Court judges and the chief justice. The incumbent, Pius Langa, and three other judges are due to step down later this year when their terms end.

The chief characteristic the ANC would look for to replace Langa is independence, Ramatlhodi said. “The chief justice must be a person who respects the law and the Constitution and who will apply it without fear or favour.”

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