Hlophe’s way

Western Cape Judge President Mandlakayise John Hlophe has launched an assault on our report last week of an interview with him, writing to Pius Langa, the chief justice, and IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi, denying all the comments attributed to him.

Hlophe denies that he was interviewed at all, saying our reporter had joined his dinner table uninvited. That simply doesn’t square with the facts — the judge president knew our reporter from before and took questions from him right away. A very relaxed Hlophe began firing immediately, sparing no one who might be seen as standing in the way of his ambition for higher judicial office. Some of his most disparaging remarks were reserved for his colleagues on the Bench and for white South Africans.

What was his understanding of the exchange between him and the reporter? If it was not an interview, what was it? An off-the-record briefing? If so, why was that not clarified? This is a man used to dealing with media. And would the remarks he made be appropriate, even in a private conversation?

Those who have tried to meet Hlophe in the past few months will know that he operates through middlemen who act as his gatekeepers. That is why the M&G flew its reporter to Cape Town at short notice for the coveted interview. To now create the impression, as Hlophe has tried to, that our reporter eavesdropped on a private conversation is disingenuous in the extreme. It seems clear that what happened is that a relaxed Hlophe, perhaps egged on by the presence of friends and supporters, said things that looked much more risky in the cold light of print.

For the media, the lesson is again that at all times reporters should record these interactions in case proof is needed. However, in the context of this interview, the middleman had asked reporter Sello Alcock to tell the photographer to ”stand down”, as he wanted a relaxed atmosphere for Hlophe.

In hindsight, perhaps we should have insisted on a photograph and the reporter being allowed to take notes. But we have no reason to believe that either Hlophe or our reporter was unaware that an interview was being conducted. Neither do we have any reason to believe that our reporter would have fabricated statements and attributed them to Hlophe. In fact, the context makes it clear that he did not. And even the statements Hlophe has not denied — describing the Constitutional Court as the home of ”green robes, white justice” for example — are outrageous enough to seriously dent his hopes of a move to Braamfontein.

The vulnerable and those who dare to speak truth to power need protection — whether from institutional, patriarchal or executive power. And the Constitutional Court is one of the few institutions that has carried out this responsibility diligently. It is there to ensure that the constitutional promise of a more equitable society informs all our choices. We need our most progressive judges in the Constitutional Court. And the sharpest, most independent of them all, leading them. This episode has again underlined why Hlophe is grossly ill-suited for this office, or indeed any judicial office.

Don’t let the crisis go to waste
It probably isn’t often that President Jacob Zuma gets to feel like United States President Barack Obama, but they do share this: each got the keys to his kingdom just as it began to fall apart. Obama took office as the financial crisis of 2008 deepened into a global recession and Zuma followed four months later, as the gloom reached South Africa.

The two presidents couldn’t be more different, however, in their capacity for emergency repairs. The US Federal Reserve said on Wednesday there were signs that economic activity was levelling out after its steep downward spiral. Good news for Obama, for whom a massive, coordinated series of economic rescue measures has been at the centre of his term so far.

Things are looking a little different for Zuma and it isn’t just the lag between global cause and local effect that is responsible.

Don’t be fooled by the rally on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, where corporate earnings and valuations have decoupled to an extraordinary degree. The run-up in share prices is a product of buying by institutional investors hemmed by exchange controls. It is also influenced by the role South Africa’s economy plays as a proxy for emerging markets generally.

All the hard data — from miserable retail sales to slumping profits and declining inflation — points in the opposite direction: down. But there is no sign of the kind of coordinated response that has helped to lift the US.

The R2,4-billion ”rescue package” announced last week contained a few good ideas, notably in the area of retraining, but it was minuscule and over-reliant on the union shibboleths about trade protection and company rescue favoured by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel.

Tito Mboweni eased rates by 0,5% this week but to be sure, policymakers will struggle to keep stimulus cash in the country, and worry about simply exporting the effects. We need to grow our way out of the slump, not wall ourselves off from it. But whatever choices they make, we need a much ­bigger, more coherent push from our most credible economic leaders: Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Lesetja Kganyago, Gill Marcus and Zuma himself — and not from the lightweight Patel.

As Obama’s right-hand man, Rahm Emmanuel, is fond of remarking, let’s not let this crisis go to waste.

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