We beat conventional wisdom with a stick
28 November 2014 04:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Judicial transformation: South Africa's appalling non-commitment

  • Pierre de Vos
When the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews candidates for appointment to various courts, many of its members seem to be passionate about its mandate to promote transformation within the judiciary. But this appears to be a rather narrow and stunted passion, often focusing on the replacement of old guard (white) patriarchs, with new order (white and black) patriarchs. Changing the racial aesthetics of the judiciary (within limits) often seems to take precedence over the need to change the prevalent legal culture, a culture which allowed most Apartheid-era judges to claim that their job was merely to apply the law – no matter how unjust, racist or oppressive – in a “neutral”, “objective” and “impartial” manner. The way in which the JSC is currently dealing with the filling of a vacancy on the Constitutional Court does nothing to challenge this impression.

The Constitutional Court is an important institution with immense powers. It can declare invalid Acts passed by the democratically elected Parliament. It can also nullify the unlawful or unconstitutional actions performed by the president. The judges are not elected. They earn their legitimacy and authority from the cogency, dynamism and logic of their judgments as well as their ability to marry a certain pragmatic respect for the separation of powers doctrine with a willingness to make principled decisions not swayed by the political pressures exerted on them by unscrupulous politicians and powerful business lobbyists. This is not an easy task, but it is made more difficult when more than 50% of the population is not adequately represented on the Court.

Currently, only two of the eleven judges on the Constitutional Court are women. For a while there were three women on the Court, but in our patriarchal society it is no surprise that this state of affairs did not last.

For the latest appointment the JSC shortlisted five candidates for interviews – all five of them male. The list is not particularly inspiring – except, perhaps, if one is a patriarchal traditionalist with strong views about the purity of the common law and the limited role judges should play in interpreting the Constitution and the law. If one believes that Constitutional Court judges have an important role to play in the promotion of a progressive, transformative vision of society through their interpretation of the Constitution and their development of the common law and customary law, the shortlist of nominees may not look particularly inspiring.

Judges Selby Baqwa, Lebotsang Bosielo and Brian Spilg are all competent lawyers, but none of these judges have (as far as I can tell) demonstrated any progressive streak or deep insight into the ways in which our legal culture could and should be transformed. Advocates Jeremy Gauntlett and Mbuyiseli Madlanga are both good advocates, but I suspect they suffer from the same deficit as the nominated judges: a lack of legal imagination and daring and a lack of enthusiasm for the transformation of the legal system.

Surely we should appoint more judges who will use their considerable legal skills to develop and mould the common law and customary law legal rules to ensure that these rules do not disproportionately benefit the powerful and the well-connected inside government, in big business and within the traditional leadership structures? Can we really say that a legal system is fair when most people cannot afford to employ the services of even a mediocre lawyer and when most judges do not subject legal rules to sustained ideological questioning, even when these rules often tend to benefit those who can afford to pay R20 million for a Buffalo or for the services of a team of highly paid advocates? And how many of the shortlisted candidates have a deep commitment to feminism and insight into the manner in which seemingly neutral legal rules often promote the interests of men (and male domination) in our society?

Sadly, I am not sure that either the JSC or President Jacob Zuma will take into account such issues during the appointments process. The Constitution prescribes a different process for the appointment of Constitutional Court judges to that used for the appointment of other High Court or Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judges. The JSC has the final say on the appointment of ordinary judges. But when a vacancy occurs on the Constitutional Court, the JSC must conduct interviews and then prepare a list of nominees with three names more than the number of appointments to be made, and submit the list to the president. When there is one vacancy – as there is now – the JSC must therefore submit a list of four names to the president. The president can then appoint one of the four candidates nominated by the JSC after consulting the Chief Justice and the leaders of parties represented in the National Assembly.

During the previous round of appointments, the list of four names included one excellent woman candidate. However, President Zuma appointed a (legally) more conservative male above a (legally) more progressive woman candidate. Not that this came as a surprise: the president was merely exercising his political discretion in accordance with his own ideological disposition, choosing a male judge that would not push for radical legal transformation above a female judge who might have been slightly more progressive.

I am, of course, not arguing that women candidates for appointment to the judiciary will always be more progressive or more prepared to pursue a vigorous transformative agenda than male judges. Just as Margaret Thatcher showed that a woman prime minister could be even more reactionary and bigoted than her male contemporaries, so the extra curial writing of judge Carol Lewis have demonstrated that a female judge on the SCA will not necessarily be more enthusiastic about judicial transformation (in either the narrow or broader sense) than her male counterparts.

There are two issues at stake here. The first is about the constitutional injunction that when making judicial appointments the need for the judiciary broadly to reflect the racial and gender composition of South Africa should be taken into account. A failure to take heed of the disproportionately small number of women judges on the Constitutional Court would suggest that – for reasons of retaining patriarchal dominance and privilege – this constitutional injunction is only respected as far as race is concerned. Although the president has the final say on who gets appointed to the Constitutional Court, voters – including all of us who take gender equality seriously – have a right and a duty to criticise the president if he fails to take heed of the imperative of gender transformation on the bench. The second issue relates to the need to appoint judges (male and female, white and black), who are passionate about transforming the legal system to make it more just and equitable, and less in service of the rich and the powerful men in our society.

Given the fact that all five candidates to be interviewed for the one vacancy on the Constitutional Court (left by the departure of Justice Zak Yacoob) are men, the JSC will send a list of four male nominees to the president to choose from. The president is, of course, not obliged to appoint anyone from this list of four names. He can advise the JSC that some of the nominees are not acceptable and provide excellent and justified reasons for this view, after which the JSC will have to supplement the list.

This means President Zuma can tell the JSC that, given the requirement contained in section 174(2) that the “need for the judiciary to reflect broadly the racial and gender composition of South Africa must be considered when judicial officers are appointed”, the absence of any women on the list is unacceptable. If he did this, the JSC would then have to produce more names that include those of appointable women candidates, of which there are several. But I am not holding my breath.

Of course, why the JSC decided not to re-advertise the Constitutional Court vacancy when it saw that no credible women candidates were nominated, tells another story about the JSC’s lack of commitment to real judicial transformation. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
Pierre de vos

Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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