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Conspiracy theories against Zondo to follow his appointment

By Mondli Makhanya

In its assessment of who could ultimately emerge as head of South Africa’s judiciary following the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews, the organisation Judges Matter alluded to the fact that Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s role as chair of the state capture commission “may well have an impact on the political considerations of his appointment, although it is difficult to assess how this is likely to play out”.

Judges Matter continued: “Zondo has been praised by some as an unlikely hero in the fight against corruption and bad governance, but he has also earned a mountain of detractors in the political realm, especially regarding the saga involving former president Jacob Zuma’s demand for Zondo’s recusal, and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment for refusing to testify at the Zondo commission. President [Cyril] Ramaphosa may therefore want to steer clear of anything that might count against him in the upcoming ANC elective conference.”

This was the general sentiment among observers after the JSC painted Ramaphosa into a corner by recommending Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) President Mandisa Maya for the position. The JSC had overshot its mandate, which was merely to assess the candidates, with the president having the ultimate say.

If Ramaphosa failed to appoint the first woman chief justice after the JSC had “picked” its candidate, he would be showing that his commitment to the advancement of women was all just talk. But if he appointed her, he would be bowing to the whims of the bunch of bullies who turned the JSC hearings into a truly shameful forum.

It did not help that Maya had effectively been given a free pass by the JSC, which patronisingly failed ask her about her impressive record.

If the president appointed Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo – probably the strongest candidate but one who the EFF, the so-called radical economic transformation (RET) adherents in the ANC and other populist forces have unfairly cast as a pro-Ramaphosa judge – he would be seen as wanting to control the judiciary, again at the expense of a woman judge.While Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga was in with a shot, he was up against formidable experience and seniority, so he did not contribute to Ramaphosa’s headache. Interestingly, the JSC ranked Madlanga third, above Zondo.

With the appointment of Zondo, knowing the blowback and false narrative it would generate, Ramaphosa showed some rare mettle. He reminded the destructive JSC clique and the political forces behind it that it is his constitutional prerogative, and his alone, to appoint the chief justice.

There will of course still be lots of noise about Zondo’s suitability for the role, given that he presided over a commission that was seen by some as a weapon in the ANC’s wars. He was demonised almost as soon as the commission began. This got worse as the body unearthed tons of depressing truths about our recent wasted decade.

The demonisation of Zondo, the Constitutional Court and the judiciary as a whole is about to get worse now that this man, who became the object of so much hate for just doing his job, is the nation’s most senior judge.

As some of the state capture-era cases already before courts and those that will arise from the Zondo commission wind their way through the system, the implicated and their supporters will weave their conspiracy theories about “the real agenda” behind the prosecutions and the impartiality of the judges hearing the cases. We can expect a major uptick in the already concerted assault on the judiciary.Ironically, it will be Zondo, the very person they love to hate, who will have to lead this defence of the judiciary from the front. His two-and-a-half-year tenure before retirement might even be rougher than that of Mogoeng Mogoeng, who, at the tail end of his reign, brought derision and ridicule on himself by behaving like a David Koresh clone.

Zondo, together with his colleagues, will have to ward off insidious attempts to turn public sentiment against judges, the Constitution and the rule of law.

Fortunately, he has shown that he has a tough enough exterior and interior for the battles to come.

That having been said, it is sad that the judiciary is being drawn into cesspits outside the courts instead of just having to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law through its work.

But that is where we are.

So, what of the man himself? Where does he fit in in the pantheon of chief justices who have led South Africa’s judiciary?

We have certainly been gifted with great jurists such as Ismail Mahomed, Arthur Chaskalson, Pius Langa, Sandile Ngcobo and Dikgang Moseneke, who, even though he was robbed of the top role, was an intellectual leader who may as well have been the main guy. Zondo will still have to create his own legacy as chief justice, but his judicial career is already stellar.

He boasts significant judgments that run deep into the two hundreds in different divisions, including the apex court. Although he does have detractors in the judiciary who question his administrative abilities, Zondo is respected for his intellectual heft, resolute leadership and workaholism.

Having made his move, Ramaphosa deftly nominated Maya as Zondo’s deputy. This puts her in pole position to move up to chief justice when Zondo retires, although this is by no means guaranteed.

But by signalling this intention, Ramaphosa may have neutralised many who would have been ready to pounce on him.

Maya will still have to go through another JSC hearing, where she will hopefully be treated with respect and subjected to an interrogation worthy of her experience and intellectual gravitas.

The spotlight will now shift to the SCA position that Maya is set to vacate. The division’s deputy president, Xola Petse, will no doubt want to move up, but his bumbling handling of the recent JSC interviews will surely weaken his chances.

This is also a presidential appointment, which Ramaphosa will make after consultation with the JSC. He can either draw from the ranks of the SCA or go to the senior echelons of the high courts. This will be another terrain on which the vicious propaganda wars will be waged over the next few months. Ramaphosa will again have to determine whether he will be swayed by noise or consider what is best for the judiciary and the rule of law.

What we can appreciate with this development is that, after a long time, there is a proper jurist at the helm of the judiciary, ably backed up by somebody of similar dignity.

In its assessment of who could ultimately emerge as head of South Africa’s judiciary following the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews, the organisation Judges Matter alluded to the fact that Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s role as chair of the state capture commission “may well have an impact on the political considerations of his appointment, although it is difficult to assess how this is likely to play out”.

Judges Matter continued: “Zondo has been praised by some as an unlikely hero in the fight against corruption and bad governance, but he has also earned a mountain of detractors in the political realm, especially regarding the saga involving former president Jacob Zuma’s demand for Zondo’s recusal, and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment for refusing to testify at the Zondo commission. President [Cyril] Ramaphosa may therefore want to steer clear of anything that might count against him in the upcoming ANC elective conference.”

This was the general sentiment among observers after the JSC painted Ramaphosa into a corner by recommending Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) President Mandisa Maya for the position. The JSC had overshot its mandate, which was merely to assess the candidates, with the president having the ultimate say.

If Ramaphosa failed to appoint the first woman chief justice after the JSC had “picked” its candidate, he would be showing that his commitment to the advancement of women was all just talk. But if he appointed her, he would be bowing to the whims of the bunch of bullies who turned the JSC hearings into a truly shameful forum.

It did not help that Maya had effectively been given a free pass by the JSC, which patronisingly failed ask her about her impressive record.

If the president appointed Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo – probably the strongest candidate but one who the EFF, the so-called radical economic transformation (RET) adherents in the ANC and other populist forces have unfairly cast as a pro-Ramaphosa judge – he would be seen as wanting to control the judiciary, again at the expense of a woman judge.While Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga was in with a shot, he was up against formidable experience and seniority, so he did not contribute to Ramaphosa’s headache. Interestingly, the JSC ranked Madlanga third, above Zondo.

With the appointment of Zondo, knowing the blowback and false narrative it would generate, Ramaphosa showed some rare mettle. He reminded the destructive JSC clique and the political forces behind it that it is his constitutional prerogative, and his alone, to appoint the chief justice.

There will of course still be lots of noise about Zondo’s suitability for the role, given that he presided over a commission that was seen by some as a weapon in the ANC’s wars. He was demonised almost as soon as the commission began. This got worse as the body unearthed tons of depressing truths about our recent wasted decade.

The demonisation of Zondo, the Constitutional Court and the judiciary as a whole is about to get worse now that this man, who became the object of so much hate for just doing his job, is the nation’s most senior judge.

As some of the state capture-era cases already before courts and those that will arise from the Zondo commission wind their way through the system, the implicated and their supporters will weave their conspiracy theories about “the real agenda” behind the prosecutions and the impartiality of the judges hearing the cases. We can expect a major uptick in the already concerted assault on the judiciary.Ironically, it will be Zondo, the very person they love to hate, who will have to lead this defence of the judiciary from the front. His two-and-a-half-year tenure before retirement might even be rougher than that of Mogoeng Mogoeng, who, at the tail end of his reign, brought derision and ridicule on himself by behaving like a David Koresh clone.

Zondo, together with his colleagues, will have to ward off insidious attempts to turn public sentiment against judges, the Constitution and the rule of law.

Fortunately, he has shown that he has a tough enough exterior and interior for the battles to come.

That having been said, it is sad that the judiciary is being drawn into cesspits outside the courts instead of just having to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law through its work.

But that is where we are.

So, what of the man himself? Where does he fit in in the pantheon of chief justices who have led South Africa’s judiciary?

We have certainly been gifted with great jurists such as Ismail Mahomed, Arthur Chaskalson, Pius Langa, Sandile Ngcobo and Dikgang Moseneke, who, even though he was robbed of the top role, was an intellectual leader who may as well have been the main guy. Zondo will still have to create his own legacy as chief justice, but his judicial career is already stellar.

He boasts significant judgments that run deep into the two hundreds in different divisions, including the apex court. Although he does have detractors in the judiciary who question his administrative abilities, Zondo is respected for his intellectual heft, resolute leadership and workaholism.

Having made his move, Ramaphosa deftly nominated Maya as Zondo’s deputy. This puts her in pole position to move up to chief justice when Zondo retires, although this is by no means guaranteed.

But by signalling this intention, Ramaphosa may have neutralised many who would have been ready to pounce on him.

Maya will still have to go through another JSC hearing, where she will hopefully be treated with respect and subjected to an interrogation worthy of her experience and intellectual gravitas.

The spotlight will now shift to the SCA position that Maya is set to vacate. The division’s deputy president, Xola Petse, will no doubt want to move up, but his bumbling handling of the recent JSC interviews will surely weaken his chances.

This is also a presidential appointment, which Ramaphosa will make after consultation with the JSC. He can either draw from the ranks of the SCA or go to the senior echelons of the high courts. This will be another terrain on which the vicious propaganda wars will be waged over the next few months. Ramaphosa will again have to determine whether he will be swayed by noise or consider what is best for the judiciary and the rule of law.

What we can appreciate with this development is that, after a long time, there is a proper jurist at the helm of the judiciary, ably backed up by somebody of similar dignity.

Mondli Makhanya is the Editor in Chief of City Press


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