KwaZulu-Natal deputy judge president Achmat Jappie may have put his foot in it yesterday, but in the end the Judicial Service Commission did not hold it against him.
He was the only candidate to be interviewed for the post of KZN judge president to succeed retired judge Chiman Patel and, after a robust interview followed by behind-closed-doors deliberations, the commission agreed to recommend him to President Jacob Zuma for appointment.
At the start of the hearing, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng asked Jappie: “What have you done to intimidate your colleagues to get them out of the race?”
To which Jappie responded to laughter in the room: “As far as the women are concerned, chief justice, I think I charmed them.”
His off-the-cuff comment prompted commissioner Julius Malema to say it was an inappropriate response. The Economic Freedom Fighters leader cut a dapper figure in a grey suit and open white shirt.
A sombre atmosphere prevailed in the conference room in Bantry Bay as everyone reflected on Jappie’s comment.
Jappie told Malema the question was asked of him in jest by the chief justice and he had responded in the same way.
“Do you have difficulty withdrawing the statement you made in jest, responding to the chief justice?” asked Malema.
Jappie withdrew the statement and later apologised.
Malema said the commission was not getting the best of Jappie because he did not seem to be proactive about the problems in KwaZulu-Natal. Perhaps Jappie had become complacent because he knew he did not have competition, he suggested. “Your credentials speak for you, but when there is one individual guaranteed for the position, it is problematic,” said Malema.
Jappie had listed all the problems but Malema said he made the situation sound hopeless.
“You know the crisis, what are you going to do with it? Or will you just inherit it and continue with it?” he asked.
In a frankness not often seen at commission interviews, Jappie listed the many difficulties facing the courts and judges, especially the limited capacity to handle the growing population and litigation in the province.
What was necessary was for more funds to be made available to the province and its courts, he said.
Among the many problems raised was the poor state of the court buildings in the province.
Jappie said the windows in the Durban high court had recently been cleaned for the first time in 15 years.
“The main challenge as far as the Durban high court is concerned is safety and space,” he said.
The state of the building was something that they were trying to get repaired, but Jappie said it was proving difficult because co-operation from the public works department was not often forthcoming.
Asked what could be done to improve the situation, Jappie said the budget was not sufficient. “There can only be a plea from the judges, not only in the provinces, that the departments that make the various allocations listen to what the judges have to say.”
He said that KwaZulu-Natal frequently needed four circuit courts, and sometimes five. Circuit courts, he said, cost a lot of money, which the province was not allocated.
On top of this there were administrative problems, which were being looked at.
Documents were misfiled, documents were lost and there were complaints from attorneys as court orders were not coming out in time, Jappie noted.
Although they had spoken up about the problems facing them, Jappie said the budgetary issues had not been addressed.
Women judges needed
More judges were needed, but there was no accommodation for them: “It is not that we don’t require them, but we would have nowhere to put them,” he said. “We do require more capacity, but there is just no space.”
There was also a need for more women judges but it had proved difficult to convince some of the worthy candidates to put themselves forward for the job.
Zuma appointed Jappie as an acting judge in the Constitutional Court from February to March this year and it is expected he might have long-term aspirations to return to the Constitutional Court.
For now, if Zuma confirms his new position in KwaZulu-Natal, he will take over the top post from Patel, who took early retirement in December last year.
To say Patel’s tenure was difficult is an understatement. This week the Mail & Guardian broke the story that he is suing the state for R3-million in damages for malicious prosecution on false charges.
It is believed that Patel’s appointment laid bare racial tensions in the province, and his attempts to reform the division had led to discontent.
Position of contention
A person thought to be favoured by the political establishment in KZN for the role of judge president was Judge Mjabuliseni Madondo, but he did not appear as a candidate for the top job.
Madondo raised eyebrows in an earlier commission interview when he stated that the judge president of the KwaZulu-Natal division should be a Zulu because that was the predominant group in the province.
When asked if the time was not ripe to appoint “an Indian”, Madondo said: “I don’t think so. We still have things to address – imbalances, all kinds of things – which need more insight, which a person who is not African cannot be privy to.”
If Zuma confirms the appointment of Jappie, said to be one of the longest-serving judges, it is hoped his tenure will be less fraught than that of his predecessor.