Chief justice hammers ‘gratuitous criticism’

The South African judiciary will meet with President Jacob Zuma to discuss the recent attacks on it, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng told a media briefing on Wednesday.

“We will meet with the head of state to address repeated and unfounded criticism [of the judiciary],” Mogoeng announced at the briefing at a hotel at the OR Tambo airport on Wednesday. This followed an extraordinary judicial heads of court meeting

The criticism “has the potential to delegitimise the courts … [the law] should not be undermined” he said.

The comments were made following attacks by senior ANC leaders and its alliance partners on the judiciary.

A general disdain for the judiciary by some ANC members was heightened after the party was criticised for allowing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to leave the country. The International Criminal Court (ICC) had indicted Bashir, who was attending an African Union summit in South Africa, over war crimes and crimes against humanity. But government said it was just respecting its African obligations.

In the subsequent uproar and further court action over Bashir’s departure, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe accused the judiciary of “overreaching” and “contradicting the interest of the state versus judiciary”.

Minister of Police‚ Nkosinathi Nhleko‚ also said in June that some judges had met with people “to produce certain judgments”.

And the ANC Youth League and the South African Communist Party are allegedly going to organise mass protests against the “biased” judiciary.

Mogoeng told the gathering that “judges like others should be susceptible to criticism but it should be fair and in good faith”.

“It should be specific and clear … gratuitous criticism is unacceptable.”

Asked by members of the media about what the judiciary thinks of Mantashe and Nhleko’s comments, Mogoeng said the judiciary is not targeting a particular comment but just want to make a broad statement.

“Our intention is not to individualise our response to the situation … We will not go blow by blow with any personality.”

Asked what he hoped the meeting with Zuma would achieve, he said “the head of state is best placed to address issues that are raised”.

“We can’t pretend that nothing has been said because something has been said. One of the healthiest approaches to challenges that judges must adopt… [is to] raise those issues with the powers that be … behind closed doors and leave them to address them.”

He also raised concern over the disregard for court orders, but qualified this by saying only a few court orders have not been honoured by government.

“The concern in our statement must be coupled with the reality that only… [a] few court orders have not been honoured by government.

Deep reflection

“Because we are only aware of one eyebrow-raising apparent disregard for a court order … we believe that this meeting and our concerns that have been raised are strong enough to discourage anyone who was thinking of disregarding court orders, to think twice.”

He said he didn’t think this was a moment of crisis for the judiciary but a moment “for deep reflection, brutal self-introspections, institutional introspection”.

“I will not try to anticipate what the president responds. But I am confident that he will reflect on what is happening now and [what is in] our statement… and deal with the engagement with a seriousness with which it deserves.”

While Mogoeng spoke, SACP president Blade Nzimande announced at the party’s congress in Soweto that the media must respect “our views” to criticise the judiciary. He went on to say that criticising those who attack the judiciary was ideological blackmail which needed to be fought. 

Other members of the legal fraternity also attended the meeting.

Busani Mabunda, co-chair of the Law Society of South Africa and president of the Black Lawyers Association, told the Mail & Guardian that “it is incumbent upon the profession to stand up and talk to these issues and spare the judiciary from assuming this role”.

Gcina Malindi, advocate at Advocates for Transformation, said the fraternity agreed with Mogoeng “who has indicated that if there are criticisms they have to be specific and they have to be clear”.

“We agree that the judiciary is not beyond criticism but gratuitous criticism and attacks on the judiciary do not strengthen democratic principles … It undermines democracy and the judiciary.”

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