Cape Town - South Africa’s most senior judge has sparked debate around the role of religion in law, in a lecture damning the country’s descent into a moral void.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng spoke at the second Annual African Law and Religion conference at the University of Stellenbosch on Tuesday night.
Mogoeng decried the levels of maladministration, crime and corruption, and “the extremely low levels to which morality has degenerated… the dishonesty as well as the injustices that have permeated all facets of society - price-fixing and fronting included”.
These, he argued, “in my view would effectively be turned around significantly if religion were to be factored into the law-making process”.
The Chief Justice was not available for any further explanation at his office at the Constitutional Court on Wednesday.
In response, Professor Pierre de Vos, who holds the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town’s Law Faculty, cited a ruling by Justice Albie Sachs - who was also a speaker at Stellenbosch on Tuesday night.
“In the judgment, the values of the constitution - human dignity, equality and freedom - are viewed as sacrosanct,” he explained.
“The constitution requires in an open and democratic society the rights of non-believers to be respected.
“Judge Sachs says there must be ‘respect for the co-existence between the secular and the sacred’.
“That means that in the legislative sphere, in the political sphere, the secular holds sway,” he explained.
But he stressed: “That doesn’t mean that people cannot have their religious beliefs. Just that it is the role of the constitution to ensure that the view of the majority doesn’t oppress other groups.”
Another academic, theologian and author, Dr Dion Forster, who lectures at Stellenbosch University, commented on his blog site: “Here’s my view. You don’t want an anti-religious government - like that in the former USSR or China, where people of faith are persecuted. Faith is an important part of life… But you certainly don’t want a religious government - we have simply seen too many of these kinds of governments abusing people,” Vorster wrote.
Instead, Vorster argued for “an honest, impartial, just, servant-minded secular state… A state that will protect and uphold the rights of all of its citizens, giving equal space for all to exercise their positive beliefs.”
The Chief Justice is publicly a devout Christian, a fact which surfaced at the Judicial Services Commission at the interviews which preceded his appointment.
“Do you think God wants you to be appointed Chief Justice,” Inkatha Freedom Party commissioner Koos van der Merwe asked Mogoeng.
“I think so,” Mogoeng said.