During her time at the Northern Cape High Court, Judge Violet Phatsoane has dealt with cases dealing with the messy confluence of politics and business interests in the province.
Last year she sentenced former Northern Cape ANC provincial chairperson, and pro-Jacob Zuma strongman, John Block, to an effective 15 years imprisonment after finding him guilty of corruption and money-laundering following an arduous four-year trial.
In a 2015 judgment Phatsoane found that Block and Christo Scholtz, CEO of the Trifecta group of companies, had facilitated government leases exceeding R100-million all across the province in exchange for kickbacks. Scholtz had R60-million worth of assets confiscated.
Sentencing was delayed after Block’s lawyers lodged a complaint with the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) alleging that Phatsoane had been influenced by Judge President Frans Kgomo. They alleged that a judge known to them had overheard a telephonic conversation between Phatsoane and Kgomo during which the latter had urged her to “convict the bastards”.
Phatsoane had dismissed the bid for her recusal.
The JSC complaint, however, provided much comedic humour during Phatsoane’s unsuccessful interview for the Northern Cape deputy judge president position in April this year.
Public Service and Administration Minister Faith Muthambi — a staunch pro-Jacob Zuma minister with more nuttiness than peanut butter — asked if the order (handed down by Phatshoane) dismissing Block’s request was “complied with?” Phatshoane nervously responded that she had handed down the order and that she had been advised by the JSC that the complaint had been “dealt with… and dismissed.”
Muthambi followed up: “Aren’t you concerned that it was dismissed as an implicated party?” Phatshoane, looking puzzled, said that “on the contrary… I was happy to receive the letter from the JSC…[and] that the JSC saw these allegations were not compliant with the act and dismissed the allegation.
The Block case, which raised the hackles of ANC MPs on the commission, and Phatshoane’s lack of experience — she has only been a permanent judge for six years — appears to have counted against her in April, despite a solid interview.
While acting at the Labour Court in 2016, Phatshoane, in MBS Transport CC v Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration & Others found that as the CCMA lacked jurisdiction to issue the writs of execution, they could be set aside as a nullity by the Labour Court. A decision criticised by academic Suemeya Hanif for the incorrect interpretation “that the awards certified by the CCMA in terms of the amended section 143(1) of the LRA [Labour Relations Act] are in fact writs.” The criticism went further to argue that Phatshoane’s decision was, in effect, “inconsistent with the memorandum of objects on the Labour Relations Amendment Bill, 2012” — making it unnecessary.
Phatshoane holds a BProc from the University of the North and LLB and LLM degrees from the University of the Free State. She was admitted as an attorney in 1999 and set up her own practise, Phatshoane Honey Inc Attorneys in 2002. She also served part-time at the Centre for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (199-2004) and a lecturer at the University of the Free State (2006-2009). She acted at the Northern Cape High Court in 2010 and 2011 before her permanent appointment that year.
October 2017 Interview:
October 2017 interview:
The Judicial Service Commission can sometimes be harder to read than a garbled ANC Youth League press release.
Sometimes innocuous seeming interviews degenerate into excruciating bloodbaths with interviewees being flayed to within an inch of their lives for some trespass — perceived or real. At others, just when you expect the commission to bare its teeth and rip a chunk out of a candidate, it declines the offer and chooses a smoothie instead.
The latter was the plat du jour during Judge Violet Phatshoane’s interview on Monday. After the allegations of divisions, factionalism and extra-procedural manoeuvring in the Northern Cape High Court favouring Phatshoane emerged during Judge Bulelwa Pakati’s interview, the gathered JSC-watchers (all four of us) were anticipating a spectacle befitting the Circus Maximus.
We got a smooth-jazz concert in the park. The probing about this apparent nepotism was subtle. Commissioners asked Phatshoane about any “challenges” in the division which she may want to address if she were appointed. She didn’t see any. Slightly changing tack, they enquired again. Phatshoane rambled on about problems in the magistracy and prosecuting authority caused by the freezing of appointments and about having called the Legal Aid Board, Bar and Side-bar for meeting when she was acting judge president so as to get a handle on the province.
Finally, Justice Minister Michael Masuthu proved the bluntest of the set of butter knives, noting that Phatshoane may not “have been frank and candid with us regarding relationships in that division” asked whether she wanted to “make some adjustments to the version you have given us”?
Phatshoane stuck to her story, saying there were no problems in the division and that she “related very well” with Pakati.
For the rest of the interview, Phatshoane appeared ill-prepared at times: she was still unable to give an authoritative analysis of the state of the Northern Cape magistracy despite being asked a similar question during her April interview when she admitted not having given that much thought. She also answered in broad brushstrokes questions relating to case-flow management and efficient hearing and delivery of judgements in that division despite being tasked with handling those areas.
At other times Phatshoane waffled on about her past achievements as a lawyer to the point when, asking the JSC whether she should carry on her self-affirmation trip, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng politely declined another “mouthful”.
Needless to say, she didn’t get the job.
April 2017 interview:
April 2017 – Interview Synopsis
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng can become quite animated while chairing the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), but he rarely sighs at such audible length that one is fearful he may be left winded.
He did so after a ramble of a preamble to some odd questions by Public Service and Administration Minister Faith Muthambi, who is the justice minister’s substitute at the JSC during this sitting.
Muthambi interrogated Judge Violet Phatshoane on a complaint lodged against her concerning a case she was adjudicating which involved former ANC Northern Cape ANC chairperson, John Block (see Phatshoane profile).
The minister first asked if the order (handed down by Phatshoane) dismissing a request by Block that she recuse herself from his corruption and money-laundering trail was “complied with?” Phatshoane nervously responded that she had handed down the order and that she had been advised by the JSC that the complaint had been “dealt with… and dismissed.”
Muthambi followed up: “Aren’t you concerned that it was dismissed as an implicated party?” Phasthoane, looking puzzled, said that “on the contrary… I was happy to receive the letter from the JSC…[and] that the JSC saw these allegations were not compliant with the act and dismissed the allegation.”
Muthambi ended her questioning. The Chief Justice exhaled. The gallery chortled.
The politicians on the commission bared their partisan teeth: Commissioner Hendrick Schmidt, of the Democratic Alliance, later pointed to the vague detail in the allegations and commented that it was based on hearsay.
Then ANC member of the National Council of Provinces, Dikgang Stock, started pushing the interviewee on her decision to dismiss the application for recusal in the Block matter.
Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema called a point of order stating that he was “worried” that the questioning was going into “dangerous territory” as the matter may be appealed.
Stock persisted. Malema raised another point of order. Mogoeng ruled to end the line of questioning.
When later asked to point out any judgments that contributed to the development of the country’s jurisprudence, Phatshoane cited the judgment in the Block matter which allowed her to address a “lacuna” in the Corruption Act.
The interview later shifted from mainstream politics to the politics within the Northern Cape when Mogoeng revealed that Judge Cecile Williams, who had initially availed herself to be interviewed for both the Judge President and Deputy-Judge President positions, had withdrawn her candidacy.
Mogoeng said Williams had written to the JSC alleging that outgoing Judge President Frans Kgomo “had been grooming [Phatshoane] over the years” to eventually lead the division. The chief justice asked Phatshoane whether this could potentially “spoil” their relationship and how what measures the interviewee would take to ensure this didn’t happen.
Phatshoane conceded “there may be a problem that may arise” and that this may be resolved at a “diversity workshop” to be held soon.
Commenting on the rate of gender and race transformation, Phatsoane said that the judiciary was “making some strides, slowly but surely we are getting there” with the number of female judges having risen from 0.7% in 1994 to around 30% in 2017.
She also cited the prospective confirmation of acting Supreme Court of Appeal president Mandisa Maya as the first female head of that court as progress. Phatshoane also stated that transformation was not not just about numbers, but also improving the capacity of judges.