'The judiciary will not be intimidated,' says Zondo

Chief justice Raymond Zondo presents judiciary's annual report

24 February 2023 - 17:06
By Franny Rabkin
While the judiciary may not respond to every criticism or insult, 'it reserves the right to draw a line', says chief justice Raymond Zondo. File image.
Image: Veli Nhlapo While the judiciary may not respond to every criticism or insult, 'it reserves the right to draw a line', says chief justice Raymond Zondo. File image.

The judiciary “will not be intimidated by anybody, no matter his or her position in society,” said chief justice Raymond Zondo on Friday.

He was delivering the judiciary’s annual report for 2021/22.

Zondo said it was the role of  the judiciary to act as the “upper guardian” of the constitution and during those years “certain events occurred in our country” that tested the role of the courts “to the limit”.

He was referring to “the attacks directed at the judiciary” arising from the stand-off between former president Jacob Zuma and the state capture commission, which had to approach the apex court for an order for Zuma to obey its lawful summons to appear before it.

Zuma defied the summons — “something that was completely unthinkable in our constitutional democracy”, said Zondo.

The Constitutional Court then held him in contempt of court and sentenced him to 15 months in prison.

The sentence was followed by the July 2021 unrest, during which “judges were attacked, demeaned, threatened and intimidated”.

It got so bad that judges of the Constitutional Court had to be given extra protection.

“All this because the judges had sought to play the role provided for them in the constitution,” he said.

“As if this was not enough for the judiciary and the country”, in January 2022 a cabinet minister, tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu, “insulted, demeaned and degraded” black judges as “house-negroes”, effectively saying they were the puppets of white masters.

She hurled these insults at black judges who, together with their white counterparts, worked hard to uphold and protect the constitution. The judiciary had responded “decisively”, he said.

We will always decide cases without fear, favour or prejudice. This is the oath of office we have taken
Chief justice Raymond Zondo

While the judiciary may not respond to every criticism or insult, “it reserves the right to draw a line”, Zondo said.

Often, attacks came from people who wanted cases decided in a certain way or were unhappy with the way cases had been decided. But judges had taken an oath to uphold the constitution and the law.

“The judiciary of South Africa — from the chief justice to the district court judicial officers in Eshowe, Nongoma, Thohoyandou, Mqanduli, or wherever — will not be intimidated by anyone, no matter his or her position in society, into giving judgments that do not accord with the constitution, the law and the evidence in a particular case,” he said.

“We will always decide cases without fear, favour or prejudice. This is the oath of office we have taken.”

Earlier, he said the judiciary had achieved most of its performance targets in the year, with three areas where it had fallen short. The courts that missed their targets were the Competition Appeal Court and the Land Claims Court.

The Land Claims Court only achieved a 49% finalisation rate when its target was 60% — an underachievement of 11%. Finalisation rates are determined by comparing how many cases are finalised against the court's caseload.

In the report, the Land Claims Court's failure to meet its target was attributed to the court being severely hampered by the affects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which prevented the court from travelling to adjudicate land claims disputes which can’t be heard virtually, and load-shedding. The court had no generator until November 2022, the report said.

In his speech, Zondo said another challenge was the Land Claims Court has not had a permanently appointed judge president for some time. There is no legislation in place for the appointment of permanent judges to this court and a bill that would resolve this has been languishing in parliament for years.

The Competition Appeal Court also failed to meet its finalisation target of 85%, achieving only a 50% finalisation rate. The report said this was due to a lack of permanent judges appointed to that court. Zondo said it had been hard to get judges of the high court to act on the Competition Appeal Court, but the court had recently got a new judge president and a “new way has been found that will, hopefully, address this problem”.

Another target the judiciary failed to achieve was to reduce the criminal case backlog in the high courts. The target was to reduce the backlog to 30% — calculated as the total number of criminal cases outstanding for more than 12 months on March 31 2022. But the percentage reached was 49% — an increase of 5% from the year before.

The report attributed this to “logistical challenges mainly due to continuous load-shedding, which had an adverse impact on the operation of the courts”.

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