Defend Truth


Dear Stephen Grootes… Let’s talk frankly about the Chief Justice


Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane is the Editor of Leadership Magazine and Anchor of Power to Truth on ENCA. He holds a PhD in media studies from Wits University. He is CEO of a communications company Sgwili Media Group and is Author of Lets Talk Frankly. He is also a trustee of the Love Life Trust, The UWC Foundation as well as Chair of the UWC Media Society.

Your analysis, which ends by calling the chief justice immoral, is highly patronising. You are wrong about Mogoeng Mogoeng and you chose the wrong example and time to try to influence us.

Stephen, I have always respected your political analyses and your grasp of the South African political landscape. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I read your tirade against Mogoeng Mogoeng, the chief justice (CJ), in a respected publication that we both write for. I could not help but conclude that this was nothing but a piece of self-justifying nonsense. Self-justifying, because you were among the first people to criticise the appointment of the CJ a decade ago and you predicted that he was going to fail on the “altar of political convenience” – the reason you say he was appointed.

Chief Justice Mogoeng’s freedom of speech could cost lives – a terrifying and yet not surprising final act

You fail to admit that you were wrong about saying that then president Jacob Zuma had appointed him for “nefarious reasons” and about your assumption that he was somehow part of a dark, under-the-covers, State Capture scheme. All you need to do, after 10 years of his tenure, is to acknowledge that he has proved you wrong. Instead, you have tried, desperately, to discount all the evidence of his independence by somehow “proving” that it was “not really his views that made him seem so independent”.

I am sad to say: this is a bare-faced lie and you know it. You spent a lot of time in your article trying to prevent the CJ from taking advantage of the same freedoms that allow you to write such drivel about him.

Your argument states, in summary, that during a pandemic, like in a war, we must all defer to the government and not say anything that may cause panic (and death). So, if the CJ believes that a vaccine may be harmful, he must keep quiet in the interests of the “broader good” (as you quote him, out of context, in one of his judgments). He must keep quiet in case he offends those who are working to save lives. This attitude is not genuine. When the pandemic set in, some of us warned that the large scale, and emergency purchase of PPE would result in corruption and stealing under the guise of “necessary emergency deviations”.

Some people argued, as you are doing now, that we have to focus on enough PPE being given to frontline workers and that we should not be questioning the procurement process – thereby delaying it, which may cost lives. We all know what has been happening behind the scenes. Politicians were stealing in the face of people who are dying while hiding behind the exigencies of a pandemic. A pandemic does not suspend our freedom of thought, Stephen. You have not slowed down holding the government to account because of the lockdown. 

So, when the CJ raises a flag in a prayer that any bad vaccine must not see the light of day, in your well-considered view, this may cost lives. By extension, therefore, he need not question why South Africa has not made a deal with a South African-based company that wants to provide vaccines. He must not question why African countries will be last in line, even when they were first in the vaccine trials… because, this may cost lives: by the West, you suggest, may choose to marginalise Africa if it is questioned. So, the CJ must just shut up and keep his views to himself. 

You have a serious nerve, Stephen, to lecture the CJ on where and when to pray – and how to exercise his freedom of expression. Even in some of the most oppressive of regimes, people are at least allowed to pray in public. You go on to lecture him about when and where to speak in his personal capacity. Politicians do that all the time in Parliament. In fact, you stand out among those who argued in support of the correctness of people voting Zuma out of office by following their consciences, thus exercising their individual freedom – outside of them being members of Parliament of a particular parliamentary caucus. 

This is hypocrisy. Please don’t get me wrong. The CJ can be questioned like everyone else, but you chose the wrong issue to prove your theory that he was going to fail as chief justice – a theory that you rather arrogantly rushed to express prematurely. That, frankly, is shameful. 

Let’s deal with just a few of your contentious engagements:

Mogoeng failed to lead the judiciary against the executive

Using some poor examples, you conclude that the chief justice has failed to lead the judiciary. You discount the meeting that he called between the executive and the president. You forget, rather quickly, that you had in fact praised him when he called this meeting back then, “as someone who was not expected to do that”. Having followed your work closely over the years, I know I am not mistaken about this. For example, the flight of Omar al-Bashir has everything to do with a lawless executive and not with the chief justice. You are not suggesting to us what he could possibly have done without being accused of interference by his colleagues. Your example is dishonest. The CJ has indeed castigated the executive in numerous judgments and without fear or favour in, my humble view. One of the starkest examples, which you have ignored, was how he was not afraid to castigate Minister Bathabile Dlamini during the social grants fiasco. I would be very surprised if you did not praise him for it when it happened. Unless, of course, you are still harbouring bitterness, because he has turned out not to be the political puppet you predicted him to be.

The Nkandla example: pure lies from your side, truly. To argue that somehow he was a mere “reader of the judgment” and that these were not really his views, is simply not true. Mogoeng has never shied away from being a minority judge, as we have seen in several cases involving the executive. How you pick which cases “he didn’t really believe in” and “where he was a mere frontman”, baffles me completely. You can’t produce a judge who can back up your hyperbolic claim that the CJ has failed to lead the judiciary and that his colleagues do not look up to him for leadership.  

He is only speaking out now that Zuma is no more

Sorry, but this is yet another lie. Early in his tenure he spoke out strongly against corruption on the different platforms where he was a public speaker. He is a CJ who is not afraid to speak out on numerous social issues, both outside his chambers, and in his courtrooms. He even got into trouble, within months of his appointment, about his religious views – views that you seem to think he must be apologetic for.

When he was appointed, he made no bones about the fact that he sees this as a calling from his God. At no point did he mute this. Your example that he supported gays and lesbians as proof that he muted this belief system is twisted logic. It certainly does not prove your theory that his religious beliefs interfere with the fact that he protects a secular Constitution. There are many religious people who are not homophobes – just in case you have not come across them. He is most certainly one of them, or he would not be worthy of being the custodian of our Constitution, which, like the Bible, actually says there are no Jews or Gentiles – but that all are created in God’s image.

And so you are telling a lie by saying he is only speaking out now. Go and read his judgments during the Zuma era and you will see that he has never wavered from doing his job properly. 

Read his speeches in the time Zuma was president and tell me whether you can sustain the argument that he has only started speaking out now. In a long-ranging, two-hour interview I conducted with the CJ at Power 987 at the height of the Zuma presidency in 2017, he spoke out strongly on issues of landlessness, for example. And long before the ANC got its act together on this issue, he spoke out about the independence of the judiciary and propagated for the establishment of an independent secretariat for the judiciary. This was when Zuma was still very much in charge. Your assertion that he is speaking out only now is untrue.

 He is reverting to his ‘primary identity’

I think you meant to left-hook this statement as an insult to an accomplished jurist. After all the work that he has done to make the judiciary a bulwark against corruption, you believe that his primary evaluation must be based on his religious beliefs and not on his judicial competence. You – Stephen – have fabricated this false dichotomy and you are using it to ridicule his religious beliefs. You are using it to explain why you say that he has failed to understand the gravitas of his office. You have decided to take his utterances about “consequences” totally out of context and to ridicule them. You know very well what he meant – that he will not be silenced by powerful forces, who would rather have him shut up.

I respect your right to opine about public servants. At the same time, though, you need to respect the freedoms we have fought for and to understand that these public servants also have a right to enjoy them. 

The justices who are Muslims don’t sit in courts at 1pm on a Friday because they choose to express their religion that way. I have not heard anyone insist they come to work at that time – we are a religious-tolerant society, in case you have not noticed (which, I am sad to say, seems to be the case). 

Our Parliament starts with prayer or silent meditation – in public. So, it’s okay for politicians to pray publicly, but not for the chief justice! Our national anthem calls on God to bless Africa – publicly, we have never been ones to shy away from our faith and we embrace religious practices in broad daylight. But, today, someone with your vaunted “savvy” calls on me to pray in private! Is that because you might not like what I am praying for? You can’t possibly be serious.

The CJ is against vaccination 

Your piece assumes that the CJ is against vaccination and you lament that he uses his faith to “fudge” this – and, so, you say it is hard to engage with him. It should be because he has never said he is against it – he has argued, correctly, that this should be voluntary and that bad vaccines (and I am sure you will agree they are possible) must not see the light of day. I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this. 

How this call is comparable to the opposition against ARVs is beyond me. ARVs save lives, but they are neither a cure, nor are they perfect. They are not above criticism as a form of creating life-long dependencies. Scientific and public discussion about their efficacy has not been banned; hence they have kept on being improved over the years. Your analogy with the terrible HIV/Aids dithering feels like a desperate attempt to paint the CJ in a bad light. You fail dismally.

The CJ has been one of the best officers of the court that we could have been blessed with as a country. Under his stewardship, the judiciary has been the last line of defence for our country that has been stolen by both business and politics. 

He is not perfect. Who is? But he deserves a lot more slack from you, Stephen, especially if you could grasp how much the rule of law is under threat. You have a right to be sceptical about any public appointment and a right to your own predictions and assessment of their performance. But, please, please have the decency to admit when you are proved wrong and do not fake evidence to fulfil your doomsday prophecies.

Your piece, that ends by calling the CJ immoral, is highly patronising. You are wrong about Mogoeng and you chose the wrong example and time to try to influence us.

Yours sincerely, 

Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 

PS: I would be happy to debate this issue with you on your radio show, should you wish to do so. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jennifer Ward says:

    Hear Hear.

  • eric mair says:

    Thank you.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    This is mostly a straw man argument, putting words into Grootes’ mouth and then arguing against them.
    As for MM’s appointment, it is likely that Zuma did choose him for ” nefarious reasons”, but ( like Trump’s Supreme Court appointments) it didn’t work out the way he hoped it would. The CJ used his position to influence that particular congregation, which is by definition easily influenced, and not withstanding a post facto nuanced reading of the message, dangerously implied that a vaccine could be Satan-like. How smart is that?

    • Palesa Tyobeka says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more. The “tirade” masquerading as a prayer by CJ was totally inappropriate for the position he holds. He has just a few months to influence only those in his immediate circle and not misuse his office in public platforms

    • Sara Gon says:

      It is highly irresponsible for the Chief Justice of a country to resort to biblically inspired doubts about something that is about science and medicine. The incantation of ‘666’ looks ignorant and superstitious. It feeds an anti-vaxxer fanaticism that just has not been borne out by evidence. To make this part of a speech to hospital staff as preacher-in-chief instead of Chief Justice inspires no confidence. He can be influenced by any religious he choses, but he must not be surprised when confidence in his analytical, judicial decisions wanes. Some of his judgments have been truly bad. The mining industry is tesitmony to this.

      • Bennie Morani says:

        Absolutely, Sara. Judges are all humans, with beliefs and prejudices. But for a judge to make such controversial and damaging statements is unacceptable.

  • Gavin Craythorne says:

    Thank you JJ. And Amen brother.

  • Bruce Watney says:

    Dr Tobane, thank you for that incredibly comprehensive retort to Steven Grootes’s article. Its magnificently written & extremely factual. I thank you as an elderly South African, thank God for people like you, with your knowledge, to straighten out journalists like Steven, with destructive articles like he wrote.

  • Hans van deRiet says:

    Dr Onkgopotse’s letter made me decide to join and pay for Daily Maverick. As we have to few people in this country being able to write honest letters like this, except in the Daily Maverick. Thanks for giving me some hope that all is not lost in this country with people like Dr Onkgopotse and many others fighting the evil in this country. Anyone not agreeing with the Dr should have an honest look into their own hearts for the reasons thereof.

  • DONALD MOORE says:

    Generally I enjoy Stephen on the radio and in Daily Maverick. I have however thought at times that he has a tenancy to be patronising and to encourage views with which he agrees and to put down views with which he disagrees. A favourite put down of Stephens is “Your are entitled to your view” or “He is entitled to his view”. But here I agree entirely with the Doctor. Stephen has failed to grant the CJ the same privilege of free speech and independent thinking that he (and most journalists) insist must be accorded to him. Neither Stephen nor any of us are perfect but I suspect that the CJ will be more ready to admit he has got it wrong, if he does get it wrong, than Stephen will be to make such an admission.

  • Stephen Carter says:

    The CJ as a private person can utter whatever he likes on subjects of faith and science. Free speech is protected under our constitution. When he speaks as a public person in his capacity of CJ, he has a constitutional duty to refrain from the divisive invective we heard spewing from his mouth on Thursday and Friday. Totally out of order. Scientists do not dabble in witchcraft. There are no vaccines with 666 in the code.

    • Karen G says:

      Agreed – especially in a country where unscrupulous pastors spray Doom in the faces of their superstitious congregrants, and make them eat snakes and rats – how irresponsible to imply that the vaccine will infuse them with 666 and the devil.

    • John Gosling says:

      Thank you Stephen! How anyone can justify CJ MM spouting such drivel in a prayer that the vaccine is satanic that will infuse the recipient with 666, the Mark of the Beast, is beyond belief! It is pure conspiracy theory at its worst! He’s entitled to his private crazy beliefs but free speech ends when he sees fit to make these pronouncements in public – he remains the CJ and his words carry enormous weight. Imagine many of those folk who were there signing up to take the vaccine!

  • Zach de Beer says:

    JJ, I admire the CJ but his views on Vaxxine are dangerous. Here in SA the anti-vaxxer movement is not that strong but in the USA it is so bad that some states have made laws that prohibit parents from withholding vaccines from the kids. It is not confined to the USA anymore a recent survey in a bunch of EU countries suggests that only 65 % of the population will take the vaccine. The CJ is not a scientist and should not espouse vaccines. It is a crime against humanity to dissuade people from vaxxine. In addition the is no human right to spread your virus as you wish.

  • Grant Walliser says:

    JJ, let’s speak frankly! When a Chief Justice starts preaching 666 and sowing doubt and fear about the efficacy of vaccines and goes so far as calling them evil to a wide audience during a pandemic; he is a giant lumpy liability. I also cheered his stance against Zuma but it matters not if he ruins it all with this unholy gaffe! In a nutshell, this is the danger of religion in a modern industrialised society. This is precisely why we separate church and state. If you don’t people with no scientific background suddenly feel they can preach to everybody about something they are utterly ignorant about. Well MM is offsides. Red card. He might literally end up killing people with his broadcast; playing God in a sense which he must know is frowned upon by his Christian deity. Not cool. Dangerous. Showing poor ‘judgement’ one might say.

    Steven Grootes calls it correctly and I am afraid you are backing up the comments of a man who is on the wrong side of science, history and sanity. Pray by all means if you must but leave vaccines to people who build them for a living, to people who approve them for a living and to people who administer them for a living.

    If anyone grows horns after the vaccine is widely administered I will retract this comment.

  • Derrick Lilienfeld says:

    Well spoken Dr Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

  • Paddy Ross says:

    It would be helpful if the CJ would explain his reasoning for holding these views. In the current absence of an explanation, I suspect that he might be referring to accounts that say that some vaccines were developed using human embryo material. Whether these accounts are true or not, I do not know. He is clearly a Fundamentalist Christian, which he is entitled to be, but as such he would not support such developments that produce these specific vaccines. He did say”If”.

  • John Gosling says:

    OT: “How this call is comparable to the opposition against ARVs is beyond me. ARVs save lives, but they are neither a cure, nor are they perfect. They are not above criticism as a form of creating life-long dependencies.”
    These few sentences lay bare the unscientific medically ignorant stance of OT that echoes throughout his piece. Let me spell out the comparison of the Mbeki government’s anti-ARV stance and MM’s anti-Covid vax pronouncements: the totally unscientific and medically incorrect beliefs around AIDS and ARV’S with the dithering of the government to roll out life-saving and life-extending ARV’s caused conservatively the unnecessary deaths of approximately 330,000 humans; by espousing totally unscientific and medically incorrect pronouncements about Covid vaccine that could result in many people who trust him and believe what he says, refusing to take the vaccine thus endangering their own lives and the lives of countless others that may unnecessarily be infected by Covid. I hope that clarifies and puts to rest your refutation of SG’s comparison. As to your statement that ARV’s “are not above criticism and cause lifelong dependencies”, it is so outrageous that I’m at a loss as to where to start to point out the how flawed that statement is. ARV’s save and extend the lives of those infected with HIV. It is not a cure but if taken regularly can allow the person to live a productive life over the course of a normal lifespan.

  • Colin Jennings says:

    So agree and Mr Zapiro (Shapiro), needs to reassess!

  • Nyameko Magongo says:

    Halala Dr JJ. I couldn’t agree more with your article.
    #Mr Grootes must fall!!! Not worth to be given such platforms to misinform the nation – lest Daily Maverick must also fall!!!

  • District Six says:

    The CJ is free to hold his personal views. When he appears in an official capacity, he must be held to a higher standard appropriate for his office. Then he is not free to say just anything. However, the CJ does have a tendency to confuse his personal views with his official duties and numerous well-established occasions prove this, where he has crossed a line. The fact that he spouted such ignorant nonsense merely makes him harder to take seriously.

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