Move over, Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe, you’ve met your match, says Carmel Rickard.
You probably thought there could be no one like Hlophe again in your lifetime: a senior judge under investigation, impeachment a possibility, a series of distasteful court cases, the judge sounding off in less than parliamentary language and slamming other top officials, political alliances stubbing toes over how to proceed, a looming constitutional crisis – and still no finality in sight.
Enter Judge Michael Ramodibedi. His story, unfolding on our doorstep, involves many of the same issues – and much more.
Ramodibedi has held senior posts in at least four African countries: the Seychelles, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. But it’s his current positions as chief justice of Swaziland and as president of the appeal court in Lesotho that are under scrutiny.
Five judges of the appeal court in Lesotho are trying to work out the next step in efforts to impeach him. This follows an appeal argued before them in Maseru on Tuesday – with a packed court eager for any new detail in the drama.
The Lesotho government appointed a tribunal to investigate whether Ramodibedi should be impeached. At this stage he has opted for delay: he’s challenged the appointment of the tribunal on the grounds that there should have been a hearing before its appointment so he could put his version of events.
While the court decides what to do next, the record of legal proceedings so far offers insight into the extraordinary charges the government wants the tribunal to consider, which relate to Ramodibedi’s behaviour in Swaziland as well as Lesotho.
In Lesotho they say he instructed his official driver to make a fraudulent insurance claim: he had to say he was driving the judge’s official car when it was involved in an accident. In fact, according to the charges, it was driven by Ramodibedi’s son – who had been drinking.
The insurance company paid more than R123 000 for repairs while Maseru paid nearly R19 000 for the excess.
There’s also a series of recriminations about other alleged financial improprieties. Some relate to overpayment of appeal judges for their August 2012 session – other judges returned the extra money but Ramodibedi did not.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the dispute, however, is that a number of charges relate to Ramodibedi’s behaviour in Swaziland, where he has been appointed chief justice, even though the law says the post should be filled by a Swazi.
A number of Ramodibedi’s actions in Swaziland that have drawn criticism from local and international human rights activists are mentioned as further charges for which he should be impeached.
They include his sacking of Swazi judge Thomas Masuku, who had given a number of pro-human rights decisions.
Maseru further cites complaints against Ramodibedi by the Law Society of Swaziland including allegations of sexual harassment by four women employed at the high court in Mbabane.
Swazi lawyers also complained about Ramodibedi’s official directive that no civil claims against the king will be accepted by the court, saying it is an abuse of his position in favour of the king.
In fact Swazi lawyers were so angry about Ramodibedi’s behaviour that a few years ago they initiated a boycott of the courts in which he presided.
The Lesotho government also quoted Ramodibedi’s “gift” of three cows to the Swazi king as a sign of his “respect”.
It said: “Such a public display of affiliation to an absolute monarch plainly undermines the public perception of judicial independence and would not be countenanced in Lesotho.”
Ramodebedi maintains the Swazi charges are none of Maseru’s business and that it is acting unconstitutionally by interfering with the judiciary, which is supposed to be independent of the government.
Regardless of the crisis around him, Ramodibedi appears undeterred. He has been criticised in the “charges” prepared for the tribunal over the fact that he has had at least four official cars at his disposal, two provided by Lesotho and two by Swaziland.
Though he stayed away from the appeal in Maseru this week he sent his wife to the event – in one of those contentious official Swazi vehicles, complete with official number plates, a driver in Swazi attire and a blue light flashing on the dashboard.