The Hlophe conundrum, revisited
- Pierre de Vos
- 08 Oct 2013 01:24 (South Africa)
When Constitutional Justices Chris Jafta and Bess Nkabinde testified under oath before a Judicial Service Commission (JSC) hearing in 2008, they both denied that undue or inappropriate pressure from other judges of the Constitutional Court coerced them into being part of a collective complaint lodged by the Constitutional Court against Judge President John Hlophe.
At the time these denials seemed strange if not completely implausible. This is so because after the Constitutional Court announced that it was laying a complaint against Hlophe because of his alleged improper attempt to try and influence judges to rule in favour of President Jacob Zuma in a case dealing with the validity of search and seizure of Zuma’s properties and those of his attorneys, the two judges issued a remarkable joint statement.
In this statement they recorded that they “have not lodged a complaint and do not intend to lodge one.” They placed on record further that they had told other judges of the Constitutional Court “on a number occasions” that “we were not intending to lodge a complaint and neither we were willing to make statements about the matter.”
For some as yet unexplained reason the judges changed their mind and endorsed the joint compliant of the Constitutional Court. At the time, giving the two judges the benefit of the doubt, it appeared to me as if they did this because they realised that if indeed an improper approach was made to them to try and influence a judgment of the Constitutional Court, this was by no means a private matter only affecting them, but a matter of the highest public importance potentially affecting the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court and of the judicial system as a whole.
Their testimony before the JSC at the time said as much. Thus Jafta told the JSC:
“Once it had been explained clearly, the distinction between, on the one hand the interest of an individual judge, and the integrity of the institution on the other hand, we were willing to participate in the complaint at that level so as to protect the integrity of the Constitutional Court.”
When Nkabinde was asked why she did not want to be an individual complainant against Hlophe she said:
“Mr Commissioner, I think in retrospect, one could have done that. This thing happened at the time when one was busy doing all sorts of things. My mind was not clear at the time as to really what is the right thing to do, and given that complexity, I didn’t see it very clearly.”
When asked if she was a willing participant in the collective complaint of all the Constitutional Court justices she told the JSC: “Oh yes, I didn’t have a problem.”
But last week the two justices once again seemed to change their minds. They were again reluctant to testify, the integrity of the Constitutional Court seemingly no longer of concern to them. The justices raised a defence that they are not obliged to subject themselves to the new proceedings (ordered by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) as the proceedings is a nullity because the relevant regulatory framework upon which the proceedings are predicated is a nullity. They intend to take the decision to reject their argument on review, suggestion that they are now extremely reluctant to testify.
From the outside, and without access to all the facts, this new U-turn seems truly bizarre. I cannot see how this serves either the interest of the Constitutional Court or the interest of the two justices. Their present course of action cannot possibly be squared with their testimony given to the JSC under oath in 2008. Does this mean they lied under oath to the JSC back in 2008? Or does this mean they did not lie in 2008, but that they have decided to that it was not worth it for them to try and protect the integrity of the Constitutional Court by testifying at a hearing because of the political pressure brought to bear on them?
This exposes the judges to questions about their own integrity. There may be other reasons for their many U-turns, but in the absence of a full and plausible explanation from the two justices, they run the risk of appearing to be either spineless and weak or unprincipled and perhaps dishonest.
The U-turns are particularly strange in the light of the damning (but contested) evidence given by the two Justices against Hlophe at the original JSC hearing.
When the two judges in 2008 proceeded to give evidence before the JSC under oath they made claims which, if true, would show that Hlophe had tried to influence them in an inappropriate manner. Jafta testified under oath that Hlophe had told him that Zuma was innocent, that he was wrongly prosecuted; and “sesithembele kinina” (we are relying on you, you are our last hope). Hlophe denied (again under oath) that he ever uttered these words.
Nkabinde similarly testified that he had told her there was no case against Zuma “that he has connections with the minister whom he advises, that he has a mandate and that he had a list of names from intelligence containing names of people involved in the arms deal who may lose their jobs”. Once again Hlophe denied many of these allegations.
If these allegations are true and if the denials issued by Hlophe are not accepted by the Judicial Conduct Tribunal, then it would be difficult not to conclude that an impeachable offence was committed by Hlophe. It would amount to a shocking attempt to influence the highest court in the land in order to protect the President from criminal prosecution. It would constitute an attack on the constitution and as it would amount to an attempt to subvert the highest law of the land.
After all, if a judge of one court – claiming to have political connections and a mandate to protect a politician – approaches judges of a higher court in an attempt to influence their judgment in order to try and protect the President of the country from criminal prosecution, it would strike at the heart of the integrity of the legal system. It is difficult to shy away from this stark conclusion.
I would think that for many lawyers who have experienced the systemic racism in the legal profession and in our wider society, it would be emotionally very difficult to accept this conclusion. This would be so, not because they do not believe in the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the Constitutional Court or of the judiciary, but because the carefully cultivated image of Hlophe as a champion for racial transformation, as the one black judge who had been brave enough to challenge racism in the legal profession head-on, is difficult to square with allegations of this magnitude. How can a champion of redress and justice also be a man of rank dishonesty who lacks even the basic integrity required for a sitting judge?
After all, after it emerged that Judge Hlophe had been paid money by an insurance company with a rather unsteady reputation before finally granting that company permission to sue a fellow judges (after the company increased the payments), he authored a report on racism in the Western Cape legal fraternity and the judiciary which he sent to the then Chief Justice. And is it not the oldest trick in the book to try and discredit those who speak out about racism and in favour of transformation by starting to question their credibility and integrity? Did Prof Malegapuru William Makgoba not face this very same tactic when he started challenging the racism of white liberals at Wits?
But regardless of these political dynamics which have (understandably, in my opinion) brought much sympathy and also fervent support for Judge President Hlophe, and regardless of the various technical legal arguments raised in the case, I believe some facts cannot be avoided.
Fact one: given the directly conflicting testimony given under oath at the previous JSC hearing, either Hlophe is a liar or Jafta and Nkabinde are liars. Fact two: a judge who lies under oath cannot and should not be allowed to serve on any court. Fact three: the allegations made by Jafta and Nkabinde, if true, constitute an impeachable offence.
Fact four: unless the appropriate body (whether the Judicial Conduct tribunal or the JSC) makes a finding on which version of events must be believed, the credibility of all three these judges would be fatally compromised. Fact five: unless there is a full hearing in which all parties can give evidence and can be cross-examined, we will never know whether pressure was brought to bear on Jafta and Nkabinde to testify against Hlophe and neither will we know if they were improperly influenced NOT to testify against Hlophe.
One or more people lied. But the person or persons who lied is not an ordinary grubby politician and the lie is not a little white lie about having one drink too many at an office Christmas party. It is in the interest of every litigant who appears before our courts – from the indigent person resisting an unlawful eviction for his or her shack, to the President of the country – that the integrity of judges should be beyond reproach. Once a belief starts taking hold that judges cannot be trusted to make decisions impartially – without being influenced by politicians who trade in power or private business parties who trade in bribes – the legal system ceases to serve the interests of the most vulnerable and marginalised and start serving only the interests of the well-connected and the rich.
It is for this reason that it, surely, cannot be in anyone’s interest not to go ahead with a full hearing in which a credible body would, once and for all, decide where the truth lies. Given the fact that some of the usual suspects (who also resist transformation of the judiciary) have lined up against Judge President Hlophe, it might be tempting for some of us to try and sweep this whole sorry saga under the carpet, to let sleeping dogs lie and to hope that whatever happened in this case was an aberration that would not permanently taint the integrity of the judiciary.
Over this past week I myself flirted with this idea. But the facts keep getting in the way. As the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) remarked when it set aside the decision of the JSC not to decide whether it was Hlophe or the two reluctant complainants who had been lying:
“It is alleged that a very high ranking judge, the head of one of the biggest divisions of the high court, attempted to influence two of the judges of another court to decide a matter in a particular way. The allegation was considered to be so serious as to constitute gross misconduct which if established may justify the removal of the judge from office. It cannot be in the interests of the judiciary, the legal system, the country or the public to sweep the allegation under the carpet because it is being denied by the accused judge, or because an investigation will be expensive, or because the matter has continued for a long time.”
I am fearful of the damage this Conduct Tribunal will do to the reputations if all concerned. What if Justices Nkabinde and Jafta had completely overreacted to the approach by Hlophe and if they had embellished their testimony before the JSC? In that event, Hlophe would have been wrongly persecuted and the two judges would have perjured themselves and would certainly have to face a Judicial Conduct Tribunal of their own for their rank dishonesty. What if they were originally pressured to testify? What if they were now improperly pressured not to testify?
But what is the alternative? Should we ignore the elephant in the room and pretend that nothing went very badly wrong in this case? It seems to me, no matter how painful and potentially damaging to some of those involved in this case, the only responsible course of action is to have an exhaustive and credible process to find exactly where the truth lies. Anything else will leave a festering sore at the heart of our judiciary. DM
- Nkandla: Zuma’s convoluted series of Houdini moves
- Nkandla: That drinking-thinking
- Women’s month, beyond lip service
- The multiplicity of freedom
- Home Affairs vs The Constitution
- Hlaudi weather: The fog is even thicker than it looks
- Wishful thinking: If the public protector were helped to do her job
- White, Afrikaans universities – when will they truly transform?
- NPA crisis: Open warfare was just the beginning
- Censoring Malema: Tempting, perhaps, but not legally valid
- Tlakula: Stark truth, stark choice
- The law vs. religion: Let’s try that again
- Evictions: 0 out of 10, SANRAL – try again
- Gay Cabinet ministers: So what’s the big deal?
- Rights and law: The untold, human stories
- Nkandla report in court: Zuma's interest above the law
- Democracy: let the real work begin
- May the Seventh be with You
- Critical thinking: the vital sign more important to democracy than your vote
- Elections: How can we level the playing field?
- Oscar’s ‘involuntary action’: Thin ice, Mr Pistorius
- That Nkandla SMS: Why the ANC won’t have its way in court
- The unbearable lightness of being a Nkandla Report critic
- Nkandla – unlawful to the last
- The president and Nkandla: No ignorance, no bliss
- The Public Protector’s Report: Who’s got the power and what is at stake?
- Why EFF election challenge would not fly
- Pistorius and that controversial Twitter ruling: questionable at best
- Uganda: why quiet diplomacy is a devastating betrayal of gay men and lesbians on the continent
- All hail independent thought
- Pistorius on TV: The public's interest vs. the public interest
- In the age of consent, the buck stops with Number One
- DA vs. ANC: The importance of political tolerance
- Campaign fever: the ground rules
- Let’s talk about freedom of speech
- DAgang's divorce: The finer sticking points
- Challenging IPID’s appointment: Always a bridesmaid, never a McBride
- Democratic internal party processes? Hmmm, unlikely.
- Why redress measures are not racist
- News flash, folks: discrimination IS illegal
- Water is life, but the struggle for it is deadly
- Changing the Constitution: much ado about nothing
- Mandela legacy: Reconciliation – a process, not a once-off event
- To call Mandela a saint is to dishonour his memory
- Love me tender: Why ‘it’s complicated’ applies to corrupt private tender processes too
- Nkandla report - the incontrovertible facts no smokescreens can cover
- The colonial roots of conferring silk on advocates
- Structural racism: the invisible evil
- E-toll civil disobedience reveals lack of respect for democracy
- We recognise sex and gender as classifications, so why not race?
- Nkandla Report blackout: It is all about PW Botha's law
- Elections are coming: Can we have some substance, please?
- The JSC: It’s not all bad, and here’s why
- The remembrance and forgetting of things past
- Nkandla: Untangling that rather sticky web
- Employment equity: the trick is in how it’s implemented
- Justice: that elusive prize, and how to get it
- Elections: The tightrope of fairness
- Teen sex: The law can’t replace parenting
- The Hlophe conundrum, revisited
- Khayelitsha policing: among the shambles and turf wars, it’s the residents who suffer
- Media freedom is a right that benefits all
- Attempts to discredit Madonsela could backfire
- The Mdluli matter: Nxasana’s first big test
- Sparing the rod: what it really entails
- Secrecy Bill: a touch more confusion, and a glimmer of hope
- Zuma's Secrecy Bill move: The Darker Side
- Hoffman’s complaint: why it was bound to fail
- Freedom of expression – and the quest for living meaningfully
- When a joke is not a joke
- The bad news: Qwelane’s constitutional challenge might just work
- Restoring the Electoral Commission: What happens next?
- A vote of no confidence is not to be taken lightly, by majority or minority
- The murky marriage of money and politics
- FF+ vs. EFF: doomed to fail
- Spy Tapes: A clear and simple case
- Hell is other people (trolling the Internet)
- Colour me irrational
- Women’s day – just another day for men to call the shots
- Arms Deal Commission: It’s the moment to make or break
- Marikana Commission: More questions than answers
- The court of individual identity
- Pius Langa: A man who knew the meaning of change
- Dear Film and Publications Board, please review your own rules
- Animal antics, and the separation of powers doctrine
- Hypocrisy fit for a king
- Take care with those ‘insults’
- ‘Top secret’ Nkandla report: On the highway to embarrassment
- Traditional leadership: Cat can look at a king
- Equal Education: The Minister doth protest too much
- Willing buyer, willing seller works… If you have a lifetime to wait
- Polygyny: Our human rights half-job
- Trial by media? Actually, that’s impossible
- Pistorius: The horror of a broken (white) body
- Oh what a tangled legal quagmire... when first we practise an NDPP to hire?
- Breytenbach: too little fear, favour and prejudice?
- The curious case of the pastor punished for honesty
- What’s that smell? Must be the name droppings.
- KZN University: A storm in a (Zulu) teacup
- Nkandla: The details will, and should, be made public
- Great speech vs. hate speech: how it really works
- Cape Town evictions: Brutal, inhumane, and totally unlawful
- The new, tamer Secrecy Bill: Still not constitutional
- Zuma and the Guptas: the ‘symbiosis’ continues
- Discrimination is illegal. When will we learn this?
- It’s not a democracy if our children aren’t equal
- An upside-down world: What would happen if we cared about the ‘others’?
- JSC: Let’s inject some common sense, shall we?
- Rose-tinted amnesia: The struggle to ‘rebrand’ SA’s Apartheid past
- Cardinal Napier: the plot thickens
- Redefining ‘merit’: first task for a transformed JSC
- The dating race
- Putting the ‘dread’ into ‘dreadlocks’
- Liars, damn liars, and the SA government
- Constitution clear on troops in the CAR: Zuma must talk to Parliament
- SA in CAR: the questions that remain
- Why are South African soldiers dying in CAR?
- Covering up sexual abuse is a crime, Cardinal
- Nkandla: Oh, what a tangled web we weave…
- The education MEC, children's heads, and a knobkerrie
- In black and white: the truth about ‘unconstitutional’ race quotas in universities
- Losing battles: Why the FMF doesn’t stand a chance
- Democracy vs. traditional leadership: the delicate ballet
- Police brutality comes as a surprise? Really?
- Sometimes a Tweeter is just a Twit
- Lady Justice’s scales appear to be faulty
- Pistorius trial: The legal principles that will decide the case
- Oscar Pistorius case: Bail isn’t denied as easily as you think
- Public opinion: Is there really any danger of prejudice against Oscar?
- All we know is that a woman is dead
- The secret history: Unearthing the mysterious Presidential Manual
- Sexwale abuse allegations: Very much our business
- SA’s rape epidemic: The limitations of outrage
- Will the real freedom of expression please stand up?
- But what of the people of Khayelitsha?
- WWE Smackdown: Zille vs. TNA edition
- Nkandla: Everything that's wrong with the Zuma government
- Nkandla: The spinning, mincing, dicing - and the report we're not allowed to read
- Beyond all (t)reason
- Judicial transformation: South Africa's appalling non-commitment
- The criminal stupidity of criminalising teen sex
- Careful, Mr Mthembu: The re-emergence of Apartheid's 'volksvreemdes' mentality
- Unequal education: the problem with providing learning for all
- SA troops in CAR: Why we should all be worried
- Mulholland column: Ignorance squared is still ignorance
- Elective processes: Something is rotten in the kingdom of the ANC
- Outa application: Courts can't fix political processes
- Chaskalson, SACP and the Constitution: Don’t touch me on my liberalism
- Carlisle and car key confiscation: Don't go with the (traffic) flow
- Dear Contralesa, please approach your nearest healer for a diagnosis
- Simelane: You can't end what never truly began
- Playing by the rules: The balancing act of Judge Dennis Davis
- Sunlight is the best disinfectant
- Lenasia: The haunting abandonment of humanity
- Lies, damn lies, and Zuma's 'bond'
- Show us the money, Mr Zuma
- The opposition doth protest too much: Why the ANC is hellbent on crushing debate
- Note to Zuma: Try commanding respect, not demanding it
- Dear Nxesi, your fantasy is damaging South Africa’s reality
- Running the Gauntlett: Why the struggle for appointment?
- Affirmative action: a decidedly middle-class problem
- Hate crime: there is no such thing as an excuse - ever
- Mfeketo and Zuma: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours?
- Ramaphosa: Where does corruption begin and end?
- The Zuma recordings: SA is the crayfish, corruption the boiling water
- No safety in numbers: Why a bigger opposition isn't a stronger opposition
- Specs, lies and audiotape - the hidden Zuma recordings
- The ANC on school closures: can they win?
- Thuli Madonsela: The difference between 'unpopularity' and 'misconduct'
- Democracy: it starts in Parliament
- The National Key Points Act: not just unconstitutional, but totally invalid
- Simelane and 'rational' thought
- Halt the witch-hunt, Minister
- Home is where the taxpayer's money is
- Will Malema's case stand up in court?
- South Africa's Striking Miners: A Menace to Society? Or just to the middle class?
- E-tolling judgement: Sorry for Gauteng, but it's perfectly lawful
- Silence is golden - if the speakers are criticising the State
- Malema at the SANDF: Inappropriate? Yes. Illegal? No.
- Freedom of religion: not so free after all
- Whites against Woolworths: doth they protest too much?
- From the NPA with fear, favour - and prejudice
- Marikana murder charge withdrawal: the first glimmer of sanity
- Abuse, Inc: The 'miners made us do it' murder charge
- A marriage made in hell
- Lonmin's Farlam Commission: not bad, not bad at all
- Marikana: Avoidable, unconstitutional… and entirely predictable