Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has condemned the courtroom arrest of advocate Malesela Teffo, the defence counsel in the Senzo Meyiwa murder trial, as an affront to the judiciary and dismissed the police’s attempts to justify it.
“The chief justice wishes to make it clear that the arrest of anybody, let alone a legal practitioner, inside a courtroom is completely unacceptable and should not have happened,” the office of the chief justice said on Tuesday night.
“In this regard it should be remembered that this was the same courtroom in which Adv Teffo appeared representing his clients.”
Zondo was asked about the dramatic arrest last week, which saw Teffo handcuffed inside the Pretoria high court as media cameras rolled, in an interview on Thursday evening, a few hours after it happened.
At the time he declined to comment because he was not sure what had transpired, but in his statement he said he has since watched footage of the arrest and taken note of further information, including the length of time that had passed since the warrant was issued and the police’s stated reasons for executing it in court.
“There was no justifiable reason why the SAPS could not have waited for Adv Teffo to leave the courtroom and the court premises before they could arrest him,” Zondo said.
“After all, as I understand the position, the warrant of arrest had been issued about two months earlier and waiting until Adv Teffo had left the court premises would not have made any difference.
“Adv Teffo was not going to spend the evening in the courtroom.”
Zondo pointed out that section 165(4) of the constitution obliged all organs of state, including the South African Police Service, to assist and protect the courts to ensure their dignity, impartiality and effectiveness.
“The conduct of the SAPS in effecting the arrest inside the courtroom and the manner in which the arrest was effected on a legal practitioner and, therefore, on an officer of the court, was an assault on the dignity of the court and the judiciary,” he added.
“An officer of the court was arrested in a manner that was totally unacceptable and showed disrespect for the judiciary.”
Zondo stressed that he was not opining about whether Teffo should have been arrested but about the way in which it unfolded.
Gauteng police commissioner lieutenant-general Elias Mawela has blamed Teffo for the fact that the arrest was carried out inside the courtroom.
“It is important to highlight that after informing the advocate of the execution of the warrant of arrest and informing him of his rights, the advocate went back into the courtroom,” he said at the weekend.
“Advocate Teffo did not co-operate with the investigating officer which warranted the call for the assistance of the tactical response team members who were already posted in the same court for escort duties.”
Teffo appeared in the Hillbrow magistrate’s court on Friday morning on charges of common assault and trespassing and was released on bail of R10,000. He allegedly assaulted a police officer after entering the Gauteng headquarters of the police in contravention of a court order.
The advocate frequently represents police officers in labour disputes and has faced criticism and sanction for his handling of cases. He has described his arrest as part of a conspiracy to cover up the real facts of the Meyiwa murder.
The General Council of the Bar said the circumstances of his arrest created the impression that “it must have been done in order to humiliate Mr Teffo, or worse, to intimidate and harass him”.
Should this inference be correct, it said, it would mean that an officer of the court was intimidated for defending his clients and would threaten the accused’s rights to legal representation and fair trial and undermine the rule of law.
Former prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who has been briefed by the Meyiwa family, said the arrest left him “speechless” and risked adding to long-running speculation about the police investigation into the murder of the late football star, who was shot dead in the Vosloosrus home of his lover Kelly Khumalo in October 2014.