/ 3 April 2017

Justice Ray Zondo: Judges do not take chances with judicial independence

Deputy chief justice nominee Ray Zondo.
The report's official handover was expected to take place later on Monday, after the Zondo commission said it would submit an electronic version to the president on Sunday evening. (Gallo)

Judicial independence is critical to our democracy, said deputy chief justice nominee Ray Zondo at his Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interview on Monday.

“We dare not take any chances with regard to that.”

In line with the Constitution, Justice Zondo was nominated by President Jacob Zuma to fill the shoes of former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke. As the only nominee, the purpose of the interview was to enable the JSC to give feedback to the president as he is required make his decision after consulting the commission.

Zondo’s interview was the first in a week of interviews for judicial appointments, including a new appointment to the Constitutional Court. Standing in for Justice Minister Michael Masutha was newly shuffled Public Service and Administration Minister Faith Muthambi.

Justice Zondo said he was not aware of any threats to judicial independence currently. “We take our independence as judges very, very seriously,” he said.

He said he would be surprised if anyone who had looked at his record would think he was not independent-minded.

Nor was he aware of any state capture of the judiciary, he said. 

“I have not heard anyone talk about that. I hope that no one even thinks there could be ground for that.” 

He said when judges were appointed, they took an oath. 

“It is not about popularity. I must take a decision that, in my view, accords with the Constitution and the law. And if that means I won’t be popular with certain people or I lose some friends in politics, or the media, or anywhere, that is just the job.”

He said when people knew they could not influence a judge’s judgments, “they may not like you, but they will respect you throughout”.

Justice Zondo had a lengthy but fairly uncontroversial interview, with only commissioner Julius Malema putting some tough questions to Zondo on his friendship with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and on whether he should have declined a nomination to make way for a woman candidate.

Mogoeng opened the interview by disclosing that he and Zondo had met in their first year at the University of Zululand and had been friends ever since. After a series of questions about how close they were (did you share a room at university? No. Have you visited each other at home? Yes.) Malema then asked whether Zondo was comfortable being interviewed by his friends. Saying perception was everything in public office, he asked whether it would not look like “two friends [were] running the judiciary”.

Zondo replied that although they were friends, this did not affect their professional relationship, in which they often disagreed. As long as they both acted with integrity, he felt there should not be a problem, he said.

On declining a nomination to make way for a woman candidate, Zondo said he was not aware of what information the president had based his decision to nominate him. He said the interview was conducted so that the JSC could give its view on that score and he did not feel he could decline the interview.

Earlier, Zondo told the commission that he was able to get his law degree because of a loan he had gotten from an Ixopo businessperson, “Mr Moosa”. When he finished matric he felt pressured to work instead of going to university so he could support his mother and nine siblings after she lost her job. Mr Moosa told him his mother could come and get groceries every month from his shop.

“He didn’t ask me to sign anything, he just took my word”.

When he finished his degree, he went back to Mr Moosa to thank him and ask him how he could pay him back.

“He said ‘no, don’t worry, just do to others what I’ve done to you’. I thought that was very important and in my own small way, I try to do that.”

Zondo served his articles at the famous struggle law firm that was run by Victoria Mxenge, who continued to run it after her husband Griffiths Mxenge was assassinated by apartheid security forces.

Speaking of how important work experience was, he said: “The labour law I studied at the University of Zululand, called ‘industrial law’, frankly didn’t give me much.

“Where I really learnt was at Mrs Mxenge’s office.”

The former judge president of the Labour Court and Labour Appeal Court said Mxenge took him as an articled clerk and said: “You have been at the LRC (Legal Resources Centre), they do a lot of labour work. Here we have a lot of labour work and none of us know that area”.

“She gave me a big office so that when workers wanted to consult with me there was enough space.” 

Saying articled clerks usually shared offices, Mxenge also gave him a secretary — also unheard of — and bought him all the books he asked for.

Then “I read extensively”, he said.

The former communications minister remained silent through most of Zondo’s interview, until it was almost at an end. But she asked him whether he had ever done community work during the recess “in line with the National Development Plan”. She followed this with a question, provoking some titters in the audience, as to whether he would exercise “prudent financial discipline” in spending the budget allocated to a conference he was helping organise.

Zondo replied that recess was not a holiday for judges and that the conference was being run by a committee, including financial people.