Zondo: ‘I can withstand any political pressure’

The incoming chief justice, Raymond Zondo, on Thursday reasserted his “fierce independence” and said judges were bound to give effect to the Constitution and could not craft judgments to curry favour with the public or court praise from analysts.

“I believe I can handle any political pressure,” he said.

Zondo was responding to questions from the media about how he hoped to restore faith in the rule of law, which is seen to be wavering as the apex court comes under continued criticism from political quarters.

“We must accept that we can’t as judges seek to make a decision that will make analysts praise us or write beautifully about us. We must seek to do justice,” he said.

“If, in doing justice, people are happy, that is fine. But it must never be the case that we want to take decisions that will make us popular. We must be prepared to make decisions that are unpopular, and suffer whatever we may suffer but those who appreciate the judiciary and the kind of judiciary that our constitution contemplates, would appreciate that the kind of judges and magistrates that they have are the magistrates and judges that belong to a constitutional dispensation such as the one we have.

“We are not going to seek to make popular decisions in order to gain confidence. We will seek to do what the Constitution requires us to do.” 

But his answers were also a reply to a raft of questions referencing conspiracy theories that his appointment by President Cyril Ramaphosa was done in return for not making findings against the president in the report of the commission of inquiry into state capture.

“I believe that the judiciary must be fiercely independent and I believe that is for every judge and every magistrate but I believe that when you are in the leadership of the judiciary, there is even a greater responsibility to demonstrate your independence,” said Zondo.

“I will never not make a finding against somebody because of anything other than there is no evidence, or the law does not support that. I will never make a finding against somebody other than because the evidence justifies it and the law justifies it in my view. I believe I am very, very independent.”

Zondo recalled that when he was acting judge president of the labour appeal court when he was a young judge of a few years’ experience, he dissented from two senior high court judges who were acting alongside him, even though one had been on the bench while he was still a student.

“I disagreed with them and wrote my own judgment.”

He was vindicated when the matter went on appeal and the constitutional court upheld his judgment. Zondo gave further examples and said he believed he was as resolute in the face of political pressure as he has proven to be when confronted with judicial dissent.

“Those might be an indication of the kind of judge I am,” he said, before adding that he believed he would never bow to political pressure.

Zondo has chaired the state capture commission for the past four years and is to deliver the fourth and final instalment of its report, which he said he was on track to do by the end of April. He said it was a misconception that this chapter would deal with the matter of alleged malfeasance regarding donations to Ramaphosa’s CR17 campaign for the leadership of the ANC. 

He had already made clear that he believed it was not the commission’s remit to delve into it further because it had been under investigation by the public protector.

“My recollection is that at a certain stage I had certainly said we must investigate it but once I became aware, maybe I might have misunderstood the position, but my understanding was that at a certain stage the public protector said she was investigating it and my view was this commission is a product of the public protector, there is no need for us to have processes that duplicate each other.”

Regarding persistent political allegations that the judiciary is captured, Zondo said nobody has to date brought any evidence to this effect or taken the trouble to analyse a ruling they believed reflected bias to show how it could not have been arrived at on the facts or the law.

He reiterated a call, made by former chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, for those who have proof that judges were swayed to bring it to place before the Judicial Conduct Committee.

“The allegations that the judiciary is captured are very serious allegations. They should not be made lightly by anybody because it is not in the interest of anybody who loves our country to portray our judiciary as captured. If anybody has any evidence that a judge is captured, or the judiciary is captured, they must come forward with evidence.”

“We must be slow to infer motive,” he added, and asked the public to accept that judgments were handed down in good faith. 

He said he was aware of long-standing allegations that the Gauteng division of the high court was not impartial when deciding cases involving the current administration.

“I have yet to see anybody who has taken the trouble to look at various judgments, analyse them and show how it can be said that the decisions that have been arrived at in those judgments are decisions that cannot be supported by any evidence but simply that they are a manifestation of a biased mind.”

Zondo acknowledged that there was organisational disarray at the apex court.

“It is a pressing issue and it is a matter that is receiving my attention, not only my attention but also the attention of my colleagues. There are challenges in the constitutional court in terms of certain judgments taking longer than they should, there have been challenges with regard to the speed with which we dispose of applications.”

He reiterated that the court had recently introduced a new system to ensure that applications were dealt with expeditiously.

“I am confident that in due course we are going to sort out that problem as well. So we accept that it is a legitimate criticism and we are dealing with it head-on.”

Zondo confirmed that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) would meet on 4 April to mull its mandate and the manner in which it worked. He added that the date was tentatively agreed in October last year.

The commission has come in for sustained criticism for the often overtly political tone of interviews with candidates for judicial appointment, and it worsened after the February interviews with the four shortlisted candidates for chief justice. 

It said at the time that it would further elaborate its criteria for recommending candidates, but would only do so after the president has appointed a new chief justice, who would also chair the JSC. 

“So there has been a realisation on the part of the members of the JSC that there is a need for a discussion of various issues. They called it their mandate and I think one of the things they seek to do is to ask the question: how are we carrying out our mandate, what is our mandate and how far does it go … are we doing it the proper way or should we look at another way of doing things?” Zondo said.

He said he believed constructive discussions to this effect will be held and that the interviews during the rest of that week with candidates for appointment to the constitutional court will go smoothly.   

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