Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on Thursday deplored advocate Dali Mpofu’s lapse of decorum earlier this week when he snapped at both Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and his legal counsel to “shut up”.
Mpofu’s outburst has been debated in the media for two days, but Zondo still appeared visibly angry as he addressed the matter at some length on Thursday, saying it seemed imperative that he do so.
Zondo said he has never — in any court, commission or forum — heard a lawyer use the same words to a colleague and to a witness.
As the chairman of the commission, he had the right to tell lawyers to sit down, as he did with Mpofu, and to stop speaking, but he would never employ the term himself, Zondo said.
“No legal practitioner, including Mr Mpofu, has the right to tell any other person in this commission to ‘shut up’,” Zondo said.
“That power belongs to the chairperson and even I will not use the words ‘shut up’. That conduct is unacceptable to this commission and it is important that the public and other legal practitioners should know that this conduct is not acceptable.”
Mpofu, who has senior counsel status, by snapping first at Gordhan’s lawyer Michelle le Roux and then the minister to shut up, had shown disrespect to certain participants in the hearing, to the commission and to himself as chairperson, Zondo said.
Zondo said he wished to record his “extreme concern” that this happened, particularly because the sittings of the commission are televised and he needed to defend the dignity of the entity.
He stressed that the rules of the legal profession demanded that any hostility between litigants may not be allowed to infect the tone between their respective counsel.
“Whatever may be the ill feeling existing between clients, it should not be allowed to influence counsel in their conduct and demeanour towards each other or towards suitors in the case,” he said.
Zondo said all those who were given a platform at the commission had a duty to the public and, indeed, to our democracy to ensure that they engender public confidence in the process.
He did not exclude taking further action on the matter.
Mpofu was completing his cross-examination of Gordhan on behalf of his client, former South African Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane, on Tuesday night. In a first session late last year, Mpofu had repeatedly tried to bait the minister with suggestions that he was racist and that this had informed his view of Moyane.
There was more of the same in Tuesday evening’s four-hour session but in the main tempers held, until the advocate’s outburst close to the end of the sitting. Gordhan gasped in reply.
Mpofu, a member of the Johannesburg Bar Council, has been dismissive of the criticism he had widely encountered since.
“They can go jump in the nearest lake,” he tweeted on Wednesday.
Le Roux has said she cannot comment on the proceedings, according to bar rules.