'If queen bee goes, hive will follow'

Grahamstown residents have united to resist the proposed Superior Courts Bill, which, they believe, will slowly strangle the life out of its 140-year-old high court and deal a crippling blow to the city’s fragile economy.

The Bill, to be tabled in Parliament early next year, proposes that the judge president of each province should sit in the same place as the provincial legislature and local government.

  • Landmark legislation
  • The idea is “to promote effective coordination”, said justice spokesperson Tlali Tlali. In the Eastern Cape this means that the seat of the high court would move from Grahamstown to Bhisho, capital of the former Ciskei homeland, 130km to the northeast.

    At the same time, a reassessment of the jurisdiction areas of each of the provincial high courts will enable communities within all municipalities to access courts within their own local areas “to alleviate the hardships of travelling long distances in pursuit of access to justice,” Tlali said.

    The legislation will affect every province, but it is in the far-flung and impoverished Eastern Cape—where, during apartheid, each homeland had its own high court—that the proposed changes will be the most drastic and the most keenly felt.

    If passed, the law would reverse previous recommendations made by the Hoexter Commission in 1995, and by a committee led by former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson in 2003, that Grahamstown should retain its seat and jurisdiction.

    Brin Brody, chairperson of Circle Nine, an association of 54 attorneys drawn from Grahamstown and surrounding areas, likened the Eastern Cape High Court in Grahamstown to a beehive, with the judge president as the queen bee: “If he leaves the hive, eventually the whole hive will leave with him.”

    The knock-on effects
    Although Tlali said that “the Bill does not envisage to close down the court or retrench court staff”, a jurisdictional reshuffle will reduce Grahamstown’s sphere of influence from two million people to 500 000.

    “If Grahamstown’s jurisdiction is reduced by 75% it will no longer be viable as a high court and it will atrophy,” Brody said.

    Circle Nine is advising the Grahamstown High Court Action Committee, a lobby group comprising 30 business, education, civil society, union and non-governmental organisations.

    An economic impact assessment study conducted by the committee estimates that as the court declines in influence it will lose 400 direct jobs, with a knock-on effect on a further 300 secondary jobs.

    The high court employs the third-highest number of people in Grahamstown after Rhodes University and the Makana Municipality. Seven of every 10 people in Grahamstown are already unemployed.

    “Grahamstown is different.
    Losing that many jobs would be devastating,” said committee chair and Rhodes University deputy vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela.

    So, while the seat of the KwaZulu-Natal High Court is being moved, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, Durban would not be as compromised as Grahamstown. “They have so many other economic options available to them,” Mabizela said.

    He is concerned that a reduced court will “weaken the municipality’s revenue base and weaken the discharge of its constitutional duties, such as the provision of certain basic rights”.

    It is a Catch-22 situation. If the municipality cannot maintain or upgrade the existing infrastructure the residence-based university cannot expand, or provide additional employment and economic growth to the town, Mabizela said.

    Tlali would not be drawn on the costs of implementing the Bill. But during a stakeholder meeting held in Grahamstown last month Vuyani Mguqulwa, a provincial justice department official, said “the figure that is being looked at [in the Eastern Cape] is R250-million”, according to a transcript made by the committee.

    Mguqulwa emphasised that this amount was for upgrades to all four of the province’s high courts, but conceded that “the greatest expenditure — that will need to be done would be mostly around [the] Bhisho and Mthatha [high courts]”.

    Already the justice system faces huge infrastructure backlogs and not just in underdeveloped rural areas.

    Crumbling court infrastructure at the South Gauteng High Court has been the subject of complaints from senior judges and the Law Society of South Africa in recent months. The complaints prompted Tlali to announce that R333-million had been allocated to upgrading the court.

    But incidents in other Gauteng courts paint the same sorry picture.

    Disruptions and incidents
    Last month Johannesburg magistrate Hein Louw blamed repeated delays in delivering his verdict in the bail application hearing of Nigerian terrorism accused Henry Okah on a lack of electronic equipment.

    More recently, a portion of the roof caved in at the Randburg Magistrate’s Court and cases had to be heard in the cafeteria and library.

    Given these backlogs, Mabizela said it is “staggering” that R250-­million should be allocated to upgrading Bhisho “to replicate what already exists in Grahamstown”.

    “If we’re talking about improving access to justice then we need to start at the lower courts, which are in the greatest need of upgrades and where the bulk of everyday justice is served.”

    Mabizela believes that losses suffered in Grahamstown will not translate directly into benefits for Bhisho: “The towns that will likely benefit are King William’s Town and East London. The lawyers and professionals will move there.”

    But Bhisho residents are unlikely to say no to a multimillion-rand injection to their economy.

    An official, who asked not to be named, but who works in Zwelitsha, near Bhisho, said Bhisho was “strategically placed”. Most people live in the former homelands, around Bhisho and King William’s Town, she said.

    She had sympathy for Grahamstown: “There’s life only during the [National Arts] Festival. There will be a lot of stress and depression because of change. It’s like trying to determine which of two devils is best.”

    Lionel Faull

    Lionel Faull

    Lionel is a reporter at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism, Amabhungane. Read more from Lionel Faull

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