Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has apparently used his position as the head of the judiciary to order the country’s top judges from a variety of religious backgrounds to attend a leadership conference by an American evangelist — raising serious concerns about the separation of church and the judiciary.
The Mail & Guardian is in possession of an email sent on behalf of Mogoeng by Memme Sejosengwe, the chief director of court performance, in which heads of court, judges president, their deputies and “the most senior judge in the division where there are no deputy judges president” are “requested to be available” for an evangelical leadership conference that was held in Kempton Park, Johannesburg this past Monday.
The “I Can John Maxwell Leadership Conference” was hosted by American evangelist and motivational speaker John C Maxwell as well as South Africans Mamikie and David Molapo of the I Can Foundation and Christian motivational speaker Abner Mariri, who has appeared as guest of honour at events held by charismatic churches such as Oasis for Life.
Mogoeng is a lay preacher at the Winners Chapel International Church and famously told the Judicial Service Commission during his interview for the position of chief justice last year that he accepted the nomination after praying and getting a “signal that it was the right thing to do”. “I am one of those believers who believe that there is God and God does speak,” Mogoeng told the JSC.
Sejosengwe’s email was sent out “by direction of the chief justice” and “requested” the presence of judges including the judge president of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Lex Mpati; the judge president of the Western Cape, John Hlophe; and the judge president of KwaZulu-Natal, Chiman Patel.
According to a legal academic who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity, the language used in the email “was judicial language for ‘you must go'”.
Mogoeng’s spokesperson, Lulama Luti said none of the justices invited had attended the conference, where there was a R650 registration fee that included DVDs of the various speakers.
She added that the speakers were “renowned leadership [and] motivational experts” and that the “invitation” was “extended based on the possible benefits that the judges would have accrued from the conference presentations, regardless of their religious affiliations.”
Responding to whether judges of other denominations or atheists were also directed to attend and whether this may cause offence, Luti said: “The internal correspondence you are in possession of was sent to all heads of courts. Our experience is that leadership is essentially informed by the same principles regardless of the faith of the facilitator.”
News of the chief justice’s order to the senior judiciary to attend the conference has elicited astonishment and outrage within the legal fraternity.
“It is absolutely shocking, there should be a complaint to the JSC,” one senior judge told M&G, citing the offence that being compelled to attend a Christian event would cause Muslim and Jewish judges, not to mention those with no religious conviction.
Another judge said it was “so inappropriate that senior members of the judiciary could be asked, compelled almost to attend this conference. It raises questions about constitutional freedoms like that of religion and association The courts are meant to be secular and to uphold the Constitution, not a religious line, so this is very troubling.”
Professor Richard Calland of the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town said the “issue of whether Mogoeng’s religion would have a strong influence on his leadership had cropped up during his [JSC] interview and this invitation to the judges appears to be in the realm of what people were concerned about when they raised it”.