We've got news for you.

Register on TimesLIVE at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

'It was purely incidental' - Pravin Gordhan denies trying to influence chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng

14 April 2021 - 15:16 By Tania Broughton
Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan says his reference to judge Dhaya Pillay during a meeting with chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was incidental. File photo.
Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan says his reference to judge Dhaya Pillay during a meeting with chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was incidental. File photo.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo/Sunday Times

Public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan has denied that he in any way sought to influence chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng “whose independence I have always respected”.

He said his reference to judge Dhaya Pillay during a meeting with the chief justice in 2016 was “purely incidental”.

In a letter to the Judicial Services Commission, he said he wished to provide clarity on comments made by Mogoeng during the interview with Pillay, in which he claimed Gordhan had approached him to ask how his “close friend” had fared.

The exchange took place in 2016, when Pillay had applied for a post on the Supreme Court of Appeal.

At her interview on Tuesday, for a position on the Constitutional Court, she came under fire from the EFF's Julius Malema for her apparent friendship with Gordhan, which she did not dispute.

However, the chief justice remarked that the 2016 incident with Gordhan had stuck in his mind, and he questioned why he had been approached by the then-minister of finance.

Gordhan, in his letter, said that he did not have a complete recollection of the meeting but at the time there were issues with fiscus constraints, the appointment of a retired judge as tax ombud, the separation of the budget of the judiciary from the Department of Justice, and a recent judgment which required National Treasury to determine reasonable costs of security upgrades for the then-president.

“According to my records, the CJ agreed to meet me in Cape Town on April 6 2016, to discuss one or more of the above matters.

“Judge Pillay is a friend and comrade of long standing. She was also the partner of the late Yunus Mohammed, a close comrade in the anti-apartheid struggle and with whom  I worked in the formation of civics in the UDF, and in the ANC underground.

“As I recall, after the completion of a cordial discussion, I, in passing, did refer to judge Pillay’s interview with the JSC. He responded and I left.

“Though, like the CJ, I cannot recall the contents of the meeting, I did not meet him to discuss judge Pillay. It was entirely incidental to the purpose of the meeting.”

Gordhan said, at that time, it was already public knowledge that judge Pillay had not been recommended for appointment to the SCA.

“As a member of the executive, I am very conscious of the fact that our democracy is based on the separation of powers and the relative independence of the judiciary, legislature and executive.

“I would never, nor did I in any way, seek to influence the chief justice, whose independence I have always respected.”

In a media statement, Gordhan said: “Any misrepresentation, wilfully or not, of the April 6 2016 meeting with the chief justice, by political actors who want to defend state capture and corruption, is highly regrettable.”

The chief justice the issue of Pillay and Gordhan's friendship at the tail end of her interview. Pillay had conceded that they were friends, that they had been anti-apartheid activists in Durban and there was “no way I could not know him”.

The chief justice said: “During the last interviews for the Constitutional Court and while the JSC programme was running, my office got a call from the office of the then minister Pravin Gordhan, seeking an appointment with me. I was a bit surprised. We had never met, except at a briefing by the minister regarding the true status of the fiscus and the need for cost-cutting measures.

“He came, I took a break. I don’t really know what the purpose of the meeting was. I don’t have a clear recollection. I think something about the tax ombudsman. But what stuck in my mind was he asked me a question: ‘How did my friend Dhaya Pillay perform?’

“We had just announced the results, it was public knowledge that you did not make it. This thing has stayed with me. It got renewed as Malema engaged you.

“Why did the minister make an effort to meet me? We are not friends. I don’t know him from anywhere except from television. Why did he make a trip to seek an audience with me to ask me how did ‘my friend’ perform?

“Is it potentially compromising to judicial independence and impartiality for a minister or a senior politician to be keenly interested in the upward mobility, or to look like he or she is interested in the upward mobility of a judge?”

Pillay said she was not aware of the interaction, which the chief justice acknowledged.

“From what you tell me, the decision had already been made,” she said.

“He was not aware,” the chief justice responded.

He agreed that the minister had simply asked how she had done, and did not say “anything like 'you should appoint her'”.

Judge Pillay said it must have come up in casual conversation.

“I am assuming, because I don’t know what he called you about. I know he would not promote me or any of his friends, specifically because of his high profile and that he would be accused of this.

“That is the extent to which I know. I would not rely on him to promote me at all. And our boundaries have been strictly observed. I can only say again, that he asked you in passing relating to other business and he was disclosing to you that he is my friend, which is no secret.”