Two civil society organisations, with interest in matters related to the judiciary, have criticised Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s recent public comments, including those on the ongoing case involving former president Jacob Zuma.
Alison Tilley of Judges Matter on Wednesday said they agreed with a statement issued by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) which urged Zondo to exercise restraint in his public engagements and to always act with the best interests of the judiciary in mind.
Zondo participated in a TV interview on Monday where he expressed his views on several issues, including judicial misconduct, the implementation of the recommendations of the state capture commission and the ongoing prosecution of Zuma.
During the interview, Zondo said he did not want to speak much about the Zuma arms deal matter as litigation was ongoing.
Zuma and his co-accused, French company Thales, face charges related to fraud, corruption and money laundering in connection with the arms deal that took place in the 1990s.
“Anyone who kept themselves informed about what people were saying at the time when his remission happened and he was released would simply know there were a lot of people who were saying 'if the government doesn't want him to serve a sentence in jail, what is this corruption trial all about, which has been going on for so long?’
“It means even if he were to be found guilty, which at this stage we don't know, but even if he were, if a judge sentences him to jail, it means that something will be done to ensure he doesn't stay in jail.
“That is what people were asking about and were concerned about.”
This was in reference to the decision in August to remit the remainder of Zuma’s 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court for failing to appear before the State Capture inquiry, which Zondo chaired.
On whether there was any point in prosecuting Zuma, Zondo said: “I would say as long as the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority) says it has enough evidence to justify prosecuting him, he must be prosecuted. If the executive (decides for him to not) spend time in jail, let the country know the NPA and the courts would have done their part and let the executive deal with the public at that time.”
Zondo said the trial must not stop.
“I would say let's continue doing what we believe is right,” he said.
He issued similar remarks at the recent National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council conference.
Casac issued a statement saying it regarded Zondo’s remarks as unfortunate and ill-advised.
“The Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to ‘not publicly comment on the merits of any case pending before, or determined by, that judge or any other court’ and to ‘not express views in a manner which may undermine the standing and integrity of the judiciary’.”
Senior researcher at Casac, Dan Mafora, said Zondo commented beyond the implementation of the State Capture Commission recommendations.
“The issues that Zondo was talking about do not form part of his job as a judicial officer, nor his job as the Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa.
“What is concerning is the Chief Justice’s willingness to take media interviews, which is something that is completely unknown among judges, specifically to avoid the perception of judges being engaged in politics and undermining the legitimacy of the office they hold.”
Mafora said the Code of Judicial Conduct did not allow for any judges, including Zondo, to respond to questions on whether Zuma should be prosecuted.
“For him to offer an answer to that question is a very clear overstepping of those boundaries.”
Jacob Zuma Foundation spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi said while they had seen the comments and reaction they would not comment for now.
The Office of the Chief Justice confirmed receiving questions on the matter but had not responded by the time of going to print on Wednesday.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said Zondo would not have made the comments had he anticipated this level of backlash.
“The judiciary finds itself under pressure because of certain individuals who are in the court system.
“Zondo’s office is the final arbiter of the Constitution and this carries a lot of responsibility. There is a certain amount of anxiety coming from this office, especially over the Zuma court matter.”