South Africa

Western Cape Judiciary Crisis

Teflon John Hlophe’s Stalingrad strategy reaches its expiry date

Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

While Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe is entitled to take on review a recommendation by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng that he face a misconduct tribunal, a history of alleged serial aggression, threats and verbal abuse will be difficult to bat away.


“Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot/That it do singe yourself.”
William Shakespeare, Henry VIII

Over the past two decades, many have complained of finding themselves at the receiving end of Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe’s coarse tongue and volatile temper.

Apart from his alleged mastery of general insult, Hlophe has, over the years, accused many of his colleagues in the legal fraternity of being racist or intimated that he was the focus of a racist conspiracy.

But on Friday 3 July 2020, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng removed that card from Hlophe’s standard weaponised deck.

Hlophe’s charge that his deputy, Patricia Goliath, was racist, said Mogoeng, “is potentially his most serious and damaging complaint”, one that would “ordinarily be pursued to the highest level possible”.

Hlophe was a man, said Mogoeng, who clearly paid close attention to detail, yet when the opportunity arrived for him to back up his accusations against Goliath “he was unable to do so”.

And so it was that Mogoeng dismissed all Hlophe’s complaints against Goliath and announced that Hlophe himself had a case to answer on charges of assault, the use of abusive language and an abuse of power in his division. 

The Teflon Western Cape Judge President, who has been embroiled in a number of controversies since his appointment to the bench in 2000, will now face a misconduct tribunal which could lead to impeachment.

While Hlophe has always styled himself as an outspoken champion of judicial transformation, his track record with regard to the appointment of black women in particular in his division contradicts this.

In April 2020, Hlophe released his list of acting judges for the second 2020 term which revealed no black African women or men. The Judge President surprised with six white and three coloured acting judges (according to government’s race classification criteria). Two new appointments went to a white woman and a white man.

Goliath is not the only colleague to be accused by Hlophe of being racist, nor is she the only one to have been subjected to his alleged verbal abuse.

In 2004, in a report on racism in the Western Cape High Court, Hlophe accused then deputy judge president Jeanette Traverso, former judge president Edwin King and advocate Jeremy Gauntlett of racism and of undermining black colleagues.

In 2005, Hlophe was accused of calling attorney Joshua Greeff “a white piece of shit” who should return to Holland. The JP also allegedly told numerous colleagues that he had allocated a specific case to Judge Wilfred Thring “because I knew he would fuck up the trial”.

Hlophe has denied the allegations.

In 2008, after Constitutional Court justices Bess Nkabinde and Chris Jaftha reported to the JSC that Hlophe had attempted to influence them to give judgments in favour of then president Jacob Zuma, Hlophe lashed out, calling for the impeachment of then chief justice Pius Langa and deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke.

It was Goliath who first broke ranks and the silence in January 2020, when she set out to the JSC the “climate of fear and intimidation” which had set in under Hlophe’s hugely controversial tenure. 

Hlophe accused Langa and Moseneke of “orchestrating the complaint”. 

Hlophe, like Zuma, said he was being targeted by political rivals and has denied ever attempting to influence the judges.

In 2011, former Constitutional Court judge Johann Kriegler led a Freedom Under Law (FUL) complaint to the JSC against Hlophe, with regard to his attack on judges of the Constitutional Court. It was dismissed.

Now, after nearly 12 years bouncing around the complicated innards of the JSC, the Nkabinde and Jaftha matter will finally be heard in October 2020.

Apart from the alleged physical assault on Parker in October 2019, Hlophe had also accused Parker, in a heated argument, of wanting “to screw his wife”(Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe). 

Hlophe had insulted him, Parker said in a sworn affidavit, before striking him “with his fist on my chest, after repeatedly threatening to ‘fuck me up’.”

Hlophe has denied these allegations.

Apart from branding Goliath a racist, Hlophe had also insulted his deputy, calling her “a piece of shit” and “rubbish” during a meeting.

And while Hlophe had denied in his answering affidavit ever saying this, a tape of the conversation had proved otherwise, said Mogoeng.

It was Goliath who first broke ranks and the silence in January 2020, when she set out to the JSC the “climate of fear and intimidation” which had set in under Hlophe’s hugely controversial tenure. 

“I am currently operating in an unsafe, unhealthy and oppressive working environment and request urgent intervention to enable me to fulfil my constitutional role as DJP,” Goliath pleaded with the JSC. 

Even worse, her plight “as a woman”, she added, “has become untenable”.

Twelve judges in the division later stood by Goliath and provided affidavits to the JSC with regard to Parker’s contradictory sworn accounts of what took place in chambers with Hlophe.

The JSC recommended on 12 June that Parker face an inquiry over the various versions he has offered and also concerning another matter involving a trust deficit in the account of his law firm. Should these allegations be proved, Parker would be guilty of gross misconduct.

Addressing Hlophe’s alleged insulting of Goliath, Mogoeng said:

“To have it established against someone who occupies the exalted office of Judge President, that he said this to a woman DJP that she is ‘rubbish’ and ‘a piece of shit’, in an era when women abuse even at the workplace is reportedly on the rise, is likely to result in a finding that the JP is guilty of gross misconduct unless lip service is being paid to fight against women abuse.”

While Hlophe’s complaint against Goliath has been dismissed, the JSC is yet to deliberate on another complaint by Hlophe’s lawyer, Barnabas Xulu, lodged against Goliath in March 2020.

Xulu, who was ordered by Judge Owen Rogers in January 2020 to return R20-million he had earned in legal fees to the state, has blamed Goliath for delaying a signing of the order for payment as she had requested more information. Xulu is one of the founder members of the Friends of Jacob Zuma. DM


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