'I am not going to shake a white man's hand'

President Jacob Zuma’s legal woes split the legal profession, including judges, right down the middle and Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe believes his sin was to side with the ANC president.

“You will recall that [at the recent hearings in Johannesburg] I never retracted the statement that I believed Zuma was innocent,” said Hlophe in an interview with the Mail & Guardian in Cape Town.

He added that a political conspiracy led by Chief Justice Pius Langa and his deputy, Dikgang Moseneke, took shape the moment he made it clear that his colours were firmly nailed to the Zuma mast.

Hlophe spoke exclusively to the M&G a day before Zuma announced his official nomination of Sandile Ngcobo (56) as South Africa’s next chief justice.

He said that although it was Zuma’s prerogative to appoint the next chief justice, he believed that the appointment of Constitutional Court Judge Sandile Ngcobo as a “stop-gap” chief justice would give “his [Zuma’s] enemies a chance to regroup”.

“I may get killed—I’m not bullet-proof,” Hlophe said. He cited Zulu monarch King Zwelethini, who had been sent into lengthy exile for his own safety after his uncle, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, displayed regal ambitions.

uBaba [father, as Zuma is known by his supporters] knows that they [his enemies] want him behind bars. But he must decide who he wants as the next chief justice,” Hlophe said.

The spokesperson for the Justice for Hlophe Alliance, Percy Gumbi, told the M&G this week that the group’s position has always been that Hlophe should be appointed chief justice immediately rather than at some point in the future.

Hlophe’s backers hope that Ngcobo will be a caretaker chief justice until his term ends in 2011, when Hlophe will take over. But observers point out that his term could run for a further six years from now.

Fresh from his appearance before a special investigatory sub-committee of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), headed by Gauteng Judge President Bernard Ngoepe, last Friday, Hlophe spoke to the M&G at a popular African restaurant in Cape Town.

Ngoepe, assisted by advocates Marumo Moerane and Ishmael Semenya, questioned Hlophe and his accusers, principally Constitutional Court judge Bess Nkabinde, with a view to establishing whether there were grounds for his impeachment.

Hlophe’s counter-complaint that the judges of the Constitutional Court had infringed his rights by supplying allegations against him to the media was also voiced.

Hlophe said after the Johannesburg hearings that he flatly refused to shake Langa’s hand, adding: “I am not going to shake a white man’s hand.”

On Langa’s decision to publish allegations that he had attempted to “improperly influence” judges Nkabinde and Chris Jafta, he said: “It was not his [Langa’s] agenda.” The Chief Justice was serving other political forces.

“The old man should have stayed out of it and waited to retire,” Hlophe said.

This was why he would not concede when the JSC panel asked him last Friday if he might have been “incorrect” in his view that Langa and Moseneke had waged a political campaign against him.

“I will not concede on that until I die,” he said this week.

On the fact that Nkabinde had stood by her original complaint, he said she had conceded that she was not sure whether there was an intention on his part to “improperly influence” her.

On that admission alone, combined with Jafta’s testimony that Hlophe had not attempted to influence him, he expected the JSC to clear him.

“I’m going to the people in Kliptown, whatever happens,” he said, referring to the African masses.

From September 5 the JSC will be interviewing for four positions on the Constitutional Court left vacant after Langa and judges Yvonne Mokgoro, Albie Sachs and Kate O’Regan retire in October.

Hlophe also said that Moseneke should not have involved himself in the complaint at all, after his anti-ANC statements on his 60th birthday.

He said the Constitutional Court judges as a group, which he labelled “green ropes; white justice”, had “sold out” in perpetuating a Eurocentric jurisprudence.

Hlophe repeated his call for the law to be “Africanised” but offered no tangible examples of how this could be done, given that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

The Constitution stipulates that indigenous law should be promoted and developed along with other foundational laws that comprise the South African legal system.

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