/ 8 December 2023

Beware of baseless judicial prejudice

Graphic Tl Calland Zondo Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

It is tiresome to write and, with apology, to read the obvious. There should be no need to state that we have many problems but a malleable judiciary devoid of integrity is not one of them.

Yet here we are, sharing the weariness of Chief Justice Raymond Zondo when he said that for four years he has asked those who allege that the bench has been captured to present him with evidence.

“Up to now nobody has come with any evidence,” he told the national judges’ conference in North West.

The question is why the sensationalist attacks continue at a current rate of two in 10 days, and so does the fascination with patent fabrication. 

Zondo answered the first question. 

“The accusation is made by those who wish to ensure that the judiciary is not trusted by the public.”

The main accusers are, of course, Jacob Zuma and his state capture accomplices who seek to discredit the evidence the Zondo commission heard. The invective grew personal, and physically threatening, as the commission asked the constitutional court to jail Zuma for contempt after he defied its order to testify before the inquiry.

Last week they received help from United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa who circulated a fake state security report accusing Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo of corruption. The author was an advocate Legal Aid SA would not employ. Mlambo is a routine target of those in and outside the ANC trying to undermine the Ramaphosa administration. 

A media report this week implied that the president released Judge Cassim Sardiwalla from active service because he was hearing evidence against former president David Mabuza. In truth, Sardiwalla asked to retire for medical reasons.

The sinister subtext was that the judiciary is a political plaything.

It is barely new. Eight years ago Mogoeng Mogoeng was moved to call Zuma to order over the executive’s attacks on the court.

This is a more fraught time still. Zondo is distrusted by the government, inevitably so because of his finding that the ANC was complicit in state capture.

The party’s real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, embodied by Nelson Mandela, lasted as long as he was in power. Ministers see judges through the prism of whether they “find against us”. 

The tension, and temptation to cast judges as enemies of the people, is not unique to South Africa. Those who recklessly call for a return to parliamentary supremacy to prevent legal review of irrational political decisions forget that this step counts among the crimes of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is up to the public to keep the trust Zondo rightly identified as the true target of the attacks on him and his colleagues. That is what safeguards the rule of law and ultimately the people when politicians rob them of their rights and dignity.