This briefing note seeks  to provide a short overview of significant events in  the  preceding month, relating to Freedom Under Law’s work on the judiciary and the  rule of law. The note aims to provide a short overview of key issues, with links to  underlying documents and articles where they are available. It is not intended to  provide a comprehensive analysis of all the issues raised. 

1. Judicial Appointments 

As noted in last month’s newsletter FUL is bringing an application to review the  JSC’s decision to leave open two vacancies on the Supreme Court of Appeal. With  this challenge ongoing, we are constrained in relation to comment regarding the  JSC’s October sitting, although some analysis of the interviews by other writers is  included in section 5. 

The  Presidency  has  announced the  formal  appointment  of  the  candidates  recommended by the JSC at the April sitting. 

Judge President Waglay of the Labour and Labour Appeal Court has retired from  active  service.  The vacant position  had  been  advertised  for  the  JC’s  April  2024  sitting. 

2. Judicial Conduct 

The Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services has recommended that the full National Assembly vote for Judge President Hlophe and Judge Motata  be  removed  from  office.  In  terms  of  section  177(1)(b)  of  the  Constitution the  National Assembly must now adopt a resolution calling  for  the judges’ removal  with a supporting vote of at least 2/3rds of its members. It appears that the vote  will take place next year. 

Freedom Under Law has welcomed the Committee’s decision.  

The tribunal hearing the complaint against Judge Makhubele reconvened but was  again  postponed,  this  time  until  January  2024.  Once  again,  the  issue  was  the payment  of  Judge  Makhubele’s  legal  fees. In  granting  the  postponement,  the  chairperson of the tribunal indicated that if Judge Makhubele was still not ready  to  proceed,  she  would  have  to  interdict  the  tribunal’s  proceedings – in  other  words, no further postponements would be granted. It remains to be seen whether  the proceedings will indeed be completed in time to allow the tribunal to achieve  its avowed goal of reporting to the JSC in time for the JSC’s April 2024 sitting. It  must be  said  that  the  trajectory  of  the  matter  to  date  makes  this  target  look  distinctly ambitious. 

Not  for  the  first  time  (see  our  June 2023 note),  extra-curial  remarks  by  Chief  Justice Zondo have been a cause for concern in some quarters. The Chief Justice was quoted as saying, in a television interview, that former President Zuma should  be prosecuted “as long as the National Prosecuting Authority is saying it has got  enough evidence to justify prosecuting him”. This was in response to a question  about “whether  there was a point in prosecuting  Zuma  on graft charges dating  back  to 2005.” It was also reported that, during  the interview,  the Chief  Justice  commented  on  the  implementation  of  recommendations  of  the  state  capture  commission, and judicial misconduct. 

The  Council  for  the  Advancement  of  the  South  African  Constitution  (CASAC)  released a statement describing the Chief Justice’s comments as “unfortunate and  ill-advised”, and expressing concern that: 

“With his comments on contentious political issues, the Chief Justice may  be perceived as wading into  the public discourse about partisan politics  and potentially bringing his impartiality (and  that of his colleagues) into  question at a time of fierce political contestation ahead of the 2024 general  elections.” 

Some analysts have expressed sympathy with the Chief Justice’s frustrations over  the  handling  of  the  state  capture  report’s  recommendations. The  potential  dangers  of  judges  being  drawn,  even  unwittingly,  into  the  political  firmament  ahead of the 2024 national elections was illustrated by the remarkable occurrence  of Deputy Chief Justice Maya’s photograph appearing on an ANC election poster.  This prompted the Office of the Chief Justice to release a statement clarifying that  the use of the imagine was unauthorized, and that the Deputy Chief Justice was not  a member  of  the ANC  or any political party, and  to demand  the  removal  of  the  image and an apology for its use. 

Allegations of corruption have led to a regional court president in KwaZulu-Natal  facing trial over allegations that he “sought and accepted gratifications to the tune  of  R238 260  from  attorneys  he  recommended  for  the  acting [magistrates] positions between 2012 and 2015.” 

The issue of delayed judgments has also featured regularly in these notes over the  course of this year, and the Constitutional Court has found itself in the firing line for a number of late judgments, and has also been criticised  for  the apparently  poor  state  of  its  website  making  it  difficult  to  determine  the  status  of  cases.  According  to a GroundUp report,  of  the judgments  the  Constitutional  Court  has reserved since August 2022 and subsequently handed down, ten were late when  measured by Groundup’s six month benchmark – with 19 qualifying as late under  the three-month benchmark of the judicial norms and standards  Freedom Under Law has released a statement expressing concern about the issue,  and urging the court’s leadership to address the matter urgently. 

A  delayed  judgment  which  has  caused particular  concern is  the  decision  in  a  challenge  brought  to  provisions  of  the  Electoral  Amendment  Act  for  allegedly  restricting the participation of independent candidates. The case was heard in late  August. The  delay  in  delivering  the  judgment  was  reportedly  described  by  the  chair of the IEC as “creating anxiety”, since the “IEC could only finalise plans for  the elections once the judgment had been handed down.” GroundUp notes that the  court  has  previously  ruled  quickly  on  election  disputes with  judgments  being  delivered  in  under  a  month  in  cases  in  1999  and  2009. (The  judgment  was  subsequently  handed  down  in  early  December  and will  be  discussed  in  next  month’s note). 

Groundup’s ongoing reporting on delayed judgments has identified 264 judgments  as outstanding for more than six months, as of mid-November. This is said to be  the highest number since reporting on the issue began in 2017. 

In  an  unusual  development,  it  was  reported  that  former  Northern  Cape  Judge  President  Frans Kgomo  is  suing  politician  John  Block and  two  of  Block’s  legal  representatives for defamation. This relates to an allegation, made during Block’s  corruption trial, that Judge Kgomo had instructed the presiding judge to “convict  the bastard”, and had exerted undue influence on the presiding judge. Incidentally,  the  presiding  judge  in  question  was Judge Violet  Phatshoane,  who  was  an  unsuccessful  candidate  for  the  Supreme  Court  of  Appeal  at  the  JSC’s  October  sitting. The issue had been raised in earlier interviews, but more recently the JSC  appears to have lost interest in it.  

3. SigniKicant cases 

Fresh from his rejection by the JSC for a position on the SCA, Justice Unterhalter  delivered an important decision as an acting justice of that court, dealing with the  constitutional right  to  further education (section 29(1)(b) of  the Constitution).1 The respondent, a prisoner, had requested to use his personal computer in his cell  for the purposes of completing an online data processing course for which he had  enrolled. The request was refused on the basis that the relevant educational policy  prohibited the use of personal computers in cells (though it permitted the use of  personal computers in a designated room at set  times, under supervision). The  high  court  found  that  the  policy  was  an  unjustifiable  limitation  of  the  constitutional right to further education and constituted unfair discrimination in  terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.2 

1 Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and Others v Ntuli (Judicial Inspectorate for  Correctional services intervening as amicus curiae) (539/2022) [2023] ZASCA 146 (8 November  2023).  

2 Paragraphs 1 – 2; 8.

Unterhalter  AJA  (Dambuza,  Meyer,  Matojane  and  Goosen  JJA  concurring)  dismissed the unfair discrimination challenge, as the high court lacked jurisdiction  (the  challenge  should  have  been brought in  the  Equality  Court).3 However,  the  policy’s  outright  prohibition  of the  use  of  a  personal  computer  in  cells  for  the  purpose  of  study  was  found  to  be  an  infringement  of  the  right  to  further  education.4 The court emphasised that the decision did not deal with any question  of a positive obligation on the state to provide computers in such circumstances,  nor that every course of further education would require a prisoner to be allowed  to use a personal computer in their cell, since: 

“What matters is whether the ability of a prisoner to pursue their chosen  course of study would benefit from access to a personal computer during  periods of time when a prisoner is confined to their cell. If there is such a  benefit, its removal infringes the right of a prisoner to further education.  …”5 

A  twelve-month period  to re-formulate  the policy was granted, with an interim  order allowing computer use subject to certain restrictions.6 

In  Savoi  and  Others  v  National  Prosecuting  Authority  and  Another, 7 the  Constitutional  Court considered  the  appropriate  procedure  to  consider  documents  which  were  claimed  to  be  protected  from  disclosure  by  legal  professional privilege, but were necessary for the determination of an application  for a permanent stay of proceedings.8 In a unanimous judgment by Theron J, the  court acknowledged the importance of both the principle of open justice and legal  professional  privilege,  and  found  that  an  appropriate  balance  could  be  struck  through an in camera consideration of  the documents alleged  to be privileged.9 Such  proceedings  would  allow  representatives  of  the  respondents to  view  the  contested documents under conditions of confidentiality, and the procedure was  “arguably  less  drastic”  than  a  “judicial  peek.”  The  court  emphasised  that  as  in  camera review was a deviation from the general principles of the administration  of justice, it was a discretion which had to be exercised “judiciously.”10 

Factors which would determine whether it was in the interests of justice to allow  such a procedure could include the purpose for which the court must consider the  relevant documents, and the consequences for the parties if the documents were  made public. In the circumstances of the Savoi case, the court found that, without  an in camera review, the applicants would be  forced to choose between dealing  with  the  documents  in  open  court,  or  “drastically  weakening”  their  case  for  a  permanent stay by arguing that professional privilege had been breached, without  giving the court sight of the documents.11 

3 Paragraphs 12 – 14. 

4 Paragraph 23. 

5 Paragraph 24. 

6 Paragraphs 35 – 36. 

7 (CCT 146/22) [2023] ZACC 38 (28 November 2023). 

8 Paragraphs 2, 18. 

9 Paragraphs 19 – 20. 

10 Paragraph 24.

The  court  emphasised  that  the  secrecy  involved  in  an  in  camera review  of  allegedly privileged documents was not  “absolute and irreversible”, since if  the  documents were privileged, the law provided an exception to the principle of open  justice. If the documents were not privileged, they should then be disclosed in the  main proceedings for a permanent stay. The court further emphasised the need  for the court to ensure that a record of in camera proceedings was kept and made  available to the parties and the public if it was subsequently determined that the  documents were not privileged.12 

Groves N.O. v Minister of Police13 dealt with the question of whether a police officer  had a discretion not to arrest a suspect when executing a warrant, and if so, what  the  discretion  entailed. The  Constitutional  Court, in  a  unanimous  judgment  by  Potterill AJ, found  that  the issue  remained  open,  as  the  prior  SCA  judgment in  Sekhoto, which appeared to establish that a discretion did arise, had incorrectly  relied on previous caselaw, and in any event dealt with a situation of an arrest  without a warrant.14 

The  Constitutional  Court  distinguished  an  arrest  in  terms  of  a  warrant  from  warrantless arrest, as a warrant would have been issued through a process which  ensured that it was not only the decision of the arresting officer which determined  a suspect’s fate.15 The court found that there was no discrepancy in the use of the  words  “may”  and  “shall”  in  sections  43  and  44  of  the  Criminal  Procedure  Act. 

Section 43(2) imposed a positive duty to arrest the person identified in a warrant  using the word “shall”, which did not grant a discretion. Section 44 provided that  a warrant “may” be executed by a peace officer in terms of the section. The court  held that this related to who had the power to execute the warrant and did not  confer a discretion when doing so.16 

4. Regional news 

The  African  Union  has adopted  a  resolution on  a  Focal  Point  on  Judicial  Independence in Africa. The aim would be to better document and monitor threats  to judicial independence. Whilst it will have to be seen how this initiative will play  out in practice, its inclusion  on  the AU’s agenda is a positive  first step  towards  greater commitment to judicial independence on the continent.    

5. Articles 

The Daily Maverick’s Professor Balthazar column discusses the JSC in the wake of  the controversy over the October SCA appointments. Describing the JSC as having  “consistently failed to fulfil its core constitutional obligations”, which “imperils the  future of an independent, resilient judiciary committed to the independence and  transformation  of  the  South  African legal  system”,  the  column details the  JSC’s  reasons  for  its decisions  to  appoint  and  not  appoint  candidates  to  the  SCA,  as  expressed in its response to a request from CASAC. 

11 Paragraph 25. 

12 Paragraph 26. 

13 (CCT 223/22) [2023] ZACC 36 (14 November 2023). 

14 Paragraphs 50 – 51. 

15 Paragraphs 52 – 53.  

16 Paragraphs 55 – 56.

The  columnist  describes  the  reasons  as  “a  textbook  case  of  irrationality”,  and  criticizes the JSC’s reasons for deciding to appoint Judge Kgoele, arguing that: 

“her interview revealed gaping holes in her legal knowledge. It is difficult  to understand how her writing abilities were superior to those of any of the  candidates who were not appointed. 

The  argument  that  there  was  symbolism  from  a  transformation  perspective  conveniently  elides  over  the  fact  that  in  at  least  two  cases  (judges Phatshoane and Siwendu) the same symbolism would have been  achieved by their appointment.” 

The  article  also  takes  issue  with  the  voting  procedure  articulated  by  the  JSC,  particularly with  the  fact  that in  the  first round of voting, more candidates had  obtained a majority of votes than there were vacancies, but in the second round,  only two obtained a majority of votes: 

“It is extremely difficult to understand how commissioners at the JSC would  vote for a candidate to be appointed and then change their mind and decide  they were not sufficiently qualified. The upshot was that three of the four  judges who initially received 12 votes were suddenly relegated.” 

After  criticising  the  reasons  for  the  non-appointment  of  Judge  Unterhalter,  the  article concludes that the reasons for only filling two vacancies are “risible”, and  advocates for the reconstitution of the JSC, specifically: 

“to ensure a reduction of  the number of members of  the  JSC, with  fewer  politicians  to  sit  thereon  and  consideration  of  a  smaller,  representative  body  which  will  apply  itself  fastidiously  to  justifiable  reasons  for  appointments or non-appointments.” 

FUL board member Professor Hugh Corder had written an op-ed arguing that the  removal of judges Hlophe and Motata  from office will strengthen South Africa’s  constitutional democracy. Corder locates his analysis in the context of threats to  constitutional  democracy  globally  and praises  the  judiciary  for  having  “shown  remarkably intelligent, nuanced and resilient commitment to its assigned role in  government,  despite  some  challenges  within  its  ranks  and  in  the  face  of  unprincipled,  indeed  outrageous,  vilification  from  party-political  quarters  sporadically.” Corder notes that there are those “who resent being held to account  for their unlawful and unconstitutional conduct”, leading to frequent litigation to  achieve  what  cannot  be  achieved  politically,  and  attempts  to  undermine  the  independence and impartiality of the judiciary.

Corder  raises  the  question  of  what,  in  this  context,  protects the  judiciary,  and  suggests that it is the institution’s popular legitimacy, “in the sense that a strong  majority of the citizenry must trust the judges and treasure their independence.”  This respect must be earned through courts operating openly, deciding disputes  expeditiously and fairly, and justifying their decisions though rational and logical  judgments.  The  consequences  of  appointing  unsuitable  candidates  to  judicial  office, Corder points out: 

“can  seriously  destabilise  and  rapidly  erode  public  confidence  in  the  institution, so it is vitally important that those (few) who are alleged not to  be up to the exacting standards expected of a judge be dealt with fairly and  without undue delay.” 

Noting  that  the  JSC’s  performance in dealing  with  such matters  “is  notoriously  defective”, Corder emphasises the significance of the Hlophe and Motata matters  reaching  the  stage  that  they  have  in  Parliament,  as  well  as  the  gravity  of  the  potential  outcome. Removing judges  from  office is  “a  traumatic moment in  our  constitutional experience” which “marks a significant signpost strengthening the  state of our constitutional democracy” and will strengthen public confidence in  the judiciary. 

The role of legal practitioners in fomenting so-called “Stalingrad” litigation is also  the subject of a Professor Balthazar column, which discusses the recent Minister of  Home Affairs v Lawyers for Human Rightsjudgment of the Constitutional Court(see  discussion in last month’s note). The article comments on the significance of the  costs order: 

“There have been many cases in the past which, at least on a reasonable  basis  (even on  the standard of an average LLB student) legal arguments  have been advanced that palpably have no merit other than to postpone an  inevitable adverse outcome against a litigant. 

All too  often, arguments in  court  have  been  targeted at  the  press  or  the  public at large rather than at the courts to gain political mileage for a client  without any recourse to a justifiable legal argument. To date, the court has  failed to mulct legal practitioners who have conducted themselves in this  fashion.” 

The article suggests that the courts need to extend the approach taken in the LHR case to other, Stalingrad style cases, and award costs ‘against a recalcitrant legal  practitioner for effectively wasting the time of the court in order to perpetuate an  unjustified Stalingrad legal strategy”, but queries whether  the LHR precedent is  limited to “non-Stalingrad” cases. 

The  potential  removal  of  judges  Hlophe  and  Motata  from  office,  and the  costs  order in the Minister of Home Affairs judgment, are both identified as crucial to the  rule of law in an op-ed by FUL.