There were tense moments when seven candidates were interviewed for the post of judge president in the new Limpopo division of the high court this week. Unlike the others, Judge Mampuru Makgoba sailed through as the person recommended for the job.
“With a new division like Limpopo, one must start with a clean slate,” Makgoba, who currently serves in the high court in Pretoria, told members of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). “A clean slate that says that backlogs in cases should not be allowed to develop.”
Makgoba’s interview went off without any major hitches, but more high-profile judges faced gruelling sessions that seemed at times to go awry.
‘The country’s most famous judge’
Arguably one of the best known judges in the country, Judge Thokozile Masipa (68) cut a lonely figure during her interview when she had to defend her reputation before the JSC.
ANC MP and JSC commissioner Mathole Motshekga said he was concerned the backlash against her judgment in the murder trial of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius might “stigmatise” the new Limpopo division.
Masipa’s new-found fame preceded her as one of only three women out of the 20 candidates who were interviewed for vacancies in South Africa’s higher courts.
Asked why other female judges had not made themselves available for this post, she said: “It is difficult to say. And I wouldn’t like to take a guess.”
The JSC is made up of an assortment of commissioners, including Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, Justice Minister Michael Masutha, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema and members of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.
Masipa said in her interview that she had been on the Bench for 17 years and that in two years, when she reached the age of 70, she would have had to step down.
Asked whether she would have had enough time in the job as Limpopo judge president, she said she could have established systems within a year.
Motshekga asked: “Don’t you think that the stigma [of the Pistorius judgment] will challenge the image of the new court and if it does, what will you do to ensure that the image of that court doesn’t suffer?”
Masipa responded that she may be naive, but she did not believe she had been “stigmatised” by the Pistorius case.
The judge had accepted the athlete’s explanation that he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, when he mistook her for an intruder in 2013, and sentenced him to five years in prison after finding him guilty of culpable homicide and acquitting him of murder.
The verdict was criticised by Steenkamp’s family and campaigners against gender violence. Yet to many who watched the televised trial, Masipa’s decision to later grant state prosecutors the right to appeal against her verdict and sentencing of Pistorius spoke volumes about her strength of character.
“I am sure you will be aware that you have become the most famous judge in this country,” said Mogoeng. “Now what we need to know is: should you be appointed, given how there was particularly unfair criticism against you, what would you do to strengthen judges when they are under attack, having gone through what you went through?”
Masipa said judges should be taught to develop a thick skin.
“A judge should expect criticism. It is not personal; at least that is what I feel,” Masipa responded. “It is an expression. When someone expresses feelings about something, we should just let them. It is not personal. Judges have been attacked all over the world. Some judges have been called morons and, as judges, we survive. We are not on the Bench to win a popularity contest.”
Friends in high places
The aspirations of Judge Joseph Raulinga of the high court in Pretoria were curtailed by the JSC this time around. Perhaps it was because he was warned by Mogoeng that a judge should never be seen to have “an unholy association” with a politician.
Raulinga mentioned his friendship with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in his curriculum vitae that was handed to the commission. This friendship was mentioned not once, but twice.
Malema drilled down to the issues, clearly quite at home on the commission, to which he was appointed last June.
“A relationship [between] a judge and a politician can lead to a misperception, and this perception in society is everything,” Malema told Raulinga. “Don’t you think that going around name-throwing names of senior politicians actually works against the integrity and the independence of the judiciary?”
Raulinga responded that judges should be transparent. “When I mentioned these names it was not even by way of disclosing; it was just to indicate that here I am, I live with other people. We live in constitutional democracy, where we have to be transparent.”
Malema asked Raulinga if he was a member of a political party and the judge said he voted for the ANC, causing a ripple of dismay in the room and earning him further admonishment.
The judge kept his cool after Malema questioned the outcome of an urgent application against the Independent Electoral Commission that the EFF had brought before him in March last year. The EFF’s application related to the R600?000 deposit required to contest the elections nationally and Raulinga dismissed it, with costs.
“I was [also] involved in a number of cases in which I ruled against the government,” Raulinga responded.
Among those he mentioned was the Mail & Guardian’s five-year battle to gain access to a report by Constitutional Court justices Sisi Khampepe and Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke on the 2002 Zimbabwe elections. Raulinga ruled that the government should hand over the report to the M&G.
Quitting the arms deal probe ‘personal’
The unexpected resignation of Judge Francis Legodi from the Arms Procurement Commission in 2013 threw the inquiry into turmoil on the eve of its hearings.
During his interview this week, he refused to budge on why he had jumped ship, merely repeating that his decision was a “personal” one.
His resignation from the commission, which was set up to probe the multibillion-rand 1999 arms deal, came six months after the resignation of senior researcher Mokgale Norman Moabi.
Moabi stated in his resignation letter that commission chairperson Judge Willie Seriti had a “second agenda” and was running a covert operation.
Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza, an advocate and spokesperson for the JSC, could not persuade Legodi to explain why he had held a meeting with President Jacob Zuma and subsequently resigned from the investigation.
Legodi sits in the Pretoria high court. He said he believed the new Limpopo high court needed strong leadership.
It was important for any leader to value everybody in the organisation, he said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.” When that happens, loyalty and implementation become the norm, said Legodi.
After deliberating, the JSC came out in favour of Makgoba for the job of Limpopo judge president, a recommendation that will now be considered by Zuma.