Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has thanked former president Jacob Zuma for kick-starting the process which has led to South Africa establishing a pathway towards a truly independent judiciary.
Zondo was speaking during his opening address at the Judges’ Conference which is being attended by the heads of courts at Sun City in North West province.
Zondo has convened the judges to allow a platform for the judges to talk about matters affecting the judiciary.
The Heads of Courts include the top presiding officers from the 10 High Court divisions, the Labour and Labour Appeal Court, Supreme Court of Appeal, Electoral Court, Land Claims Court, Competition Appeal Court, the Constitutional Court and the Magistrate’s Courts.
Zondo thanked Zuma for establishing the Office of the Chief Justice as a government department under Proclamation 44 of 2010 on August 23, 2010.
“(The Office of the Chief Justice as a department) was established by President Zuma. This was a very important step on our journey to complete institutional independence as the judiciary.
“We must take this opportunity to express our appreciation that President Zuma during his term established this institution. It now remains for those who came after him to take the project for the institutional independence of the judiciary, further,” he said.
Zondo said a report by former chief justices Pius Langa and Arthur Chaskalson made recommendations on steps that needed to be taken to ensure that the country had a judiciary-based court administration.
“For over 10 years the executive did not respond to the judiciary, and in that way, our fight for full institutional independence was impeded. It is a pity on the one hand that President Zuma took such an important step of establishing such an important institution, but for many years thereafter, the executive did not take the matter further,” said Zondo.
Zondo added that the executive, under President Cyril Ramaphosa, has come back and indicated that they were researching so that they could give a response.
Zondo said arising from recommendations by Langa and Chaskalson, he appointed Judge Bernard Ngoepe to head a panel to investigate some of the recommendations, and he too, was awaiting the report from the panel.
He said Ramaphosa had indicated they were ready to meet and have a discussion about the kind of models required.
“It is my wish that next year should end with a final decision so that soon South Africa will have a judiciary-based model of court administration,” he said.
Earlier, at a press conference held before the opening address, Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo called for legal bodies in the legal profession to step up in providing protection and support when judges come under unwarranted attack amid political sparring aimed at the judiciary.
Mlambo and Zondo said some judges had received death threats as they presided in high profile matters implicating former president Zuma.
Zondo said judges presiding on matters affecting former president Zuma had been intimidated and received death threats.
Zondo said he was aware of one matter in KZN, where the 65 accused were set to stand trial next year for allegedly conspiring to kill him during the July unrest of 2021.
The accused face a total of eight charges which include terrorism, conspiring the commission of terrorism, sedition, public violence, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit public violence and incitement to commit public violence.
The July riots followed after Zuma was sentenced to 10 months in prison for defying the Constitutional Court.
In November 2020, Zuma stormed out of the State Capture Inquiry which Zondo was presiding over.
Zondo secured a Constitutional Court order in January 2021, compelling Zuma to appear before the commission in February. Zuma expressed he was not afraid to go to jail and defied the court order.
He was subsequently sentenced to 10 months in prison for contempt of court, in July 2021.
Mlambo also spoke about how one of the judges had reached out to him after being threatened.
“One of the judges was seriously hysterical because he received personal threats on his cellphone,” said Mlambo.
Zondo said he was aware of the incident Mlambo was referring to and that threats were made against judges.
“Threats were made against other judges. Intimidating messages were being spread during the July unrest.
“Petrol bombs were shown to say certain houses would be burnt. I have become aware that there were people facing some charges relating to the unrest in that they conspired to kill me during the unrest and the case is said to be going to the high court in January.
“It is quite important that judges be protected. One of these protections is to have a public net that appreciates the role of judges in society,” said Zondo.
Mlambo said judges could not be defending themselves publicly on matters, and called on legal bodies to step in where they couldn't, as those cases could invariably land back in court.
“I come from a past where the legal profession was always on hand to protect the judiciary. That kind of intervention has sort of receded, it is now up to legal NGOs to defend the judiciary.
“I would hope these legal entities go back to basics because it would be very untidy for us to engage with these things blow-by-blow because they could land up in our courts,” he said.