/ 25 August 2023

Editorial | Zondo: Law and politics collide

Ntw 4389
Chief Justice Raymond Zondo

Spare a thought for Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. 

Chairing the commission of inquiry into state capture was physically demanding, mentally depressing work, surely made more so by the knowledge that it will not change the world as we know it. The looting continued apace — and does so in the present — while he was excavating the past.

Six months after he handed over the last of his findings, and two months after the president outlined how the recommendations would be processed, Nomvula Mokonyane was elected as the ANC’s first deputy secretary-general.

In case anyone could forget, the Zondo report urged her criminal prosecution for receiving inducements, notably a R50 000 monthly stipend from Bosasa. Allegedly she accepted meat and alcohol too.  

Zondo knows that distasteful compromise is keeping Cyril Ramaphosa in power. He knows that his findings against the ANC in particular — it was either asleep at the post as the country was plundered or it did not care — will have about as much effect as graffiti glimpsed along the highway. 

As a man aspiring to become chief justice it bordered on noble for Zondo to take the ruling party apart in his report. As a lawyer it must be hard to leave the defence of your work in the hands of counsel working for the state controlled by that self-same party. 

Yet Zondo and what remains of the commission must do precisely that because more is at stake than prevailing in the dozen court challenges filed by people implicated in the report.

In the case of state capture accused Salim Essa, senior counsel for the commission and the chief justice incurred a costs order for wasting the court’s time by seeking the recusal of the high court justice hearing a routine application in that review bid.

Let us be clear that we are not in the realm of US supreme court Justice Clarence Thomas, the recreational vehicle of his dreams and the friend in the healthcare industry who helped him buy it. 

Let’s stress too that Zondo was not in court on 3 August when the application for recusal was heard. He may well have cautioned counsel, an advocate whom he on occasion took to task while he led evidence before the commission, not to go down that road. 

We do not know to what extent taking a private law firm as instructing attorneys in the matter was his doing. We are miffed that he did not respond to our questions in this regard, but mainly we would have preferred having no reason to ask those. 

For in the process not only Essa but Zondo’s critics in the state (and there are many) were gratified. We are increasingly seeing law and politics collide in other countries, from Israel to the US where prosecutors and judges have to make decisions that may determine the presidential elections. We watch the legal reckoning of Donald Trump and Hunter Biden unfold with uneasy recognition because we have been there with Jacob Zuma and what followed was an onslaught on the judiciary. Zondo was his prime target. 

So let Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and the solicitor-general handle this. Let the outcome be on their heads, the cost for their account. We need the chief justice — whether we preferred him or justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga or, as Lamola did, justice Dunstan Mlambo — at an impeccable, safe distance because our democracy depends dearly on the sanctity of the judiciary.