Mixed reactions over Zondo’s comments

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo accused of undermining judiciary with his comments about former president Jacob Zuma’s pending arms deal case. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo accused of undermining judiciary with his comments about former president Jacob Zuma’s pending arms deal case. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 19, 2023


Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s remarks in a TV interview, and his address to the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council, have drawn widespread reactions.

Civil organisations and political analysts have shared different views on the matter, with some saying Zondo’s remarks compromised the judiciary, while others believed it was important for the country to have a sense of the Chief Justice's views.

During his address last week, Zondo spoke about the ANC conferences and “Gupta-Zuma capture” and asked attendees when they think it started.

However, various organisations, including the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), Rational Youth Movement, and Black People’s National Crisis Committee (BPNCC), lashed out at Zondo for his remarks.

In a statement released on November 9, the day after Zondo’s address, the PAC secretary for publicity and information, Azania Tyhali, said Zondo had compromised the independence of the judiciary.

Tyhali said the Chief Justice cannot be seen as taking as a matter of fact issues that are likely to end up contested in courts.

“Many of the allegations about the Gupta brothers and former president Zuma are likely to end up in our courts. The comments by the Chief Justice at the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council have compromised the integrity of any case that is to be brought to the court with the judicial commission into allegations of state capture,” she said.

Similarly, BPNCC’s Songezo Mazizi said the organisation would file a complaint with the Judicial Service Commission against Zondo. Mazizi said BPNCC was concerned about Zondo’s unbecoming behaviour.

He said this was not the first time Zondo had dragged the judiciary into the political arena.

“The Chief Justice has done this before when he called a press briefing to respond to the opinion piece penned by a former cabinet minister, Lindiwe Sisulu.

“The continued conduct of the Chief Justice to enter political discourse, if allowed to continue unchecked, risks putting the independence and impartiality of the judiciary in question. How are our courts expected to be seen as impartial when dealing with charges related to the judicial commission of inquiry into allegations of State Capture that the Chief Justice himself was chair of?”

The spokesperson for the Rational Youth Movement, Doctor Shange, said: “The comments of the Chief Justice have the potential of undermining the judicial independence. The Chief Justice was chairing a wasteful, useless commission that failed to provide evidence of the allegations that were made in the commission, and to this day we haven’t seen any successful convictions. The Constitutional Court is struggling to issue judgments in time and that’s where we expect the Chief Justice to invest his time.”

The Chief Justice also came under fire this week following his comments during an interview on Newzroom Afrika, where he shared his views on topics including the implementation of the recommendations of the State Capture Commission, judicial misconduct, and the pending prosecution of Zuma.

However, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) said Zondo crossed the boundaries of acceptable speech by judges and should be reproached.

Casac said they regarded the remarks as unfortunate and ill-advised.

Their statement read, “Casac believes that the Chief Justice’s remarks in the interview crossed the boundaries of acceptable speech by judges and should be reproached. While answering questions about the recommendations of the State Capture Commission, which he chaired, the Chief Justice ventured into commentary about matters he has no personal knowledge of, even speculating as to the reasons for the government’s failure to implement the recommendations.”

“More concerning were his comments regarding the pending arms deal corruption trial of former president Zuma, a matter that is still pending before the high court, as well as his insinuation that Zuma may, in future, benefit from remission of sentence if tried and convicted.”

When asked to comment on these views, Zondo’s spokesperson Lusanda Ntuli did not respond.

Meanwhile, there were mixed reactions among political analysts.

Political analyst Professor Sipho Seepe said the Chief Justice's obsession with Zuma has reached such a level that it prejudices every case that involves the former president.

“For now, president Zuma must accept that there is a risk of judges being tainted by the Chief Justice's comments,” he said.

Political analyst and governance expert Sandile Swana said South Africa was in the grip of state capture and had developed the characteristics of a mafia state, where criminal syndicates controlled political factions and functions of the state. He said judges needed to express concerns on these issues.

“It is common knowledge that the executive, including the Department of Justice and Corrections, have been compromised by corruption. The Thabo Bester and Bosasa cases prove that both Parliament and the Cabinet are compromised relative to how they administer just-issued sentences.

“The last sentence validly issued against Jacob Zuma was watered down by the executive arm of the state, creating an impression that not all are equal before the law. Judges do need to express their concerns about such behaviour by Parliament and the Cabinet, including favouritism,” he said.

Professor Kedibone Phago, a director of the School of Government Studies at North West University, said: “It is important for the country to have a sense of Chief Justice’s views on many of these matters. We need to be regularly taken into confidence by the judiciary and this is even more important after the state capture that has wreaked havoc and hallowed out our public institutions and state-owned entities of their critical resources.

“For me, it also serves as an opportunity to gauge if our democratic system is still at work, especially for the judiciary where it matters the most.

“While it is important to strictly adhere to the Code of Conduct for judges, this also requires some balancing act because the Chief Justice is the head of our judiciary and needs to make certain expressions regularly, especially on some of these high-profile cases.

“In that way, I think it provides a litmus test on the situation regarding our current situation and the independence of the judiciary, which is so sacrosanct to maintain.”

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