The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) will conduct interviews with the four shortlisted nominees for chief justice in the first week of February next year, it said on Thursday.
This signals that the country will spend at least four months without a permanent replacement for Mogoeng Mogoeng, who retired on 11 October.
The JSC said the interviews with acting chief justice Raymond Zondo, Constitutional Court Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga, Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) President Mandisa Maya and Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo would take place from 1 to 5 February.
The acting president of the SCA, Judge Xola Petse, will preside over the interviews.
The JSC said it had given the nominees until next Friday to complete questionnaires and submit standard, required documentation for those who seek appointment to the bench. It would then invite law bodies and the general public to make submissions on the suitability of the candidates.
After the February interviews and deliberations, the JSC will submit a report to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The president in late October invited public nominations for the post and named a panel, headed by Judge Navi Pillay, to compile a list of suitable candidates. The step was taken to imbue what is ordinarily a presidential prerogative with greater transparency.
It is not yet known if Ramaphosa will eventually release the report of the Pillay selection panel, though legal commentators have said they hope he would make it public.
The shortlist came as little surprise. Zondo, Maya, Madlanga and Mlambo have long been considered the most obvious candidates to succeed Mogoeng, and all have their fervent supporters in the legal community.
The president is not bound by the input of either the JSC or the leaders of opposition parties when he makes a final choice.