100822. Cape Town. President Jacob Zuma speaking at a school in Mitchells Plain. Picture henk Kruger/Cape Argus/Cape Times

The Centre for Constitutional Rights expressed concern over President Jacob Zuma's reported comments that the justice system was “the white man's way” for solving “African problems”.

“The Constitution - and justice system established by the Constitution -is not “the white man's way”,” advocate Johan Kruger said in a statement on Friday.

“The Constitution was freely adopted, as the supreme law in South Africa, by all our people in the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, the justice system is not only subject to the Constitution, but is mandated to uphold the values, rights and principles enshrined in the Constitution.”

Kruger said those values and rights included, among others, equality before the law, access to justice, the right to legal representation and the right not to be punished in a cruel, degrading or inhuman manner.

Zuma told traditional leaders that Africans had their own way of solving their problems through traditional institutions, it was reported on Friday.

“Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man's way,” Zuma was quoted saying at the opening of National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament on Thursday, The Times reported.

“Let us not be influenced by other cultures and try to think the lawyers are going to help us. We have never changed facts. They tell you they are going to change facts. They will never tell you that these cold facts have warm bodies,” he said.

Kruger said the Constitution, in terms of section 211, respected the institution, status and role of traditional leadership according to customary law.

Similarly, the Constitution determined that customary law must be applied by the courts whenever such law is applicable.

“However, the Constitution, in no uncertain terms, determines that these institutions and customary laws remain subject to the Constitution as supreme law in South Africa,” Kruger said.

“President Zuma's remarks regarding the justice system raise particular concern since he is sworn to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution and the justice system established in terms of the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, Zuma's spokesman Mac Maharaj said the media had misrepresented Zuma's remarks.

“Media reports on President Zuma’s speech... (have) been sensationalised by some newspapers to the point of being grossly misleading,” Maharaj said.

“(They) indicate that the president has wholeheartedly supported the bill, and has deliberately left out his acknowledgements of (its) shortcomings... which have to be addressed.”

The newspaper reported that Zuma's comments could be viewed as an endorsement of the Traditional Courts Bill, which is currently under consideration in Parliament.

In his statement, Maharaj quoted extracts from the speech, in which Zuma acknowledged the bill “has been criticised for being flawed for a number of reasons”.

Further, Zuma had said that all the concerns raised were being addressed as part of an on-going parliamentary process.

Maharaj said the bill clearly needed further work, and everybody had acknowledged that fact.

“It is unfortunate that the information was excluded from reports in order to convey a particular view and stereotype,” he said.

“In the interest of fairness, we believe that the affected media should carry the adequate and proper correction.”

The bill was first submitted in 2008. Its opponents say it empowers chiefs to act as judge, prosecutor, and mediator, with no legal representation and no appeals allowed.

The Times reported that if enacted, it will affect about 19 million rural people who live on tribal lands ruled by chiefs. - Sapa