With a reputation for a colourful yet no-nonsense approach to his work, Anand Maharaj’s criminal case-load as a regional magistrate reflects the unequal, grimy, sometimes perverted, generally weirded-out, world which is Durban.
He has seen it all. Adjudicated it too. From sentencing a police officer to a mere ten years imprisonment for the killing of 17 year-old Nqobile Nzuza during a 2013 housing protest to giving a 24-year-old a twenty year sentence for drink driving which led to the death of three people. At the time of sentencing Maharaj was unequivocal that the “imposition of an exemplary and austere” sentence was required to send a warning message out to similar offenders.
A demonstration of the unevenness with which Maharaj appears to sometimes approach sentencing. While he did not appear to feel a strong message should be sent out to Durban’s increasingly repressive police who, have been gunning down housing activists for years, he handed down a 65-year sentence to two men convicted of hijacking and robbing an “an attractive, vibrant young woman”.
Maharaj has acted seven times at the High Court in KwaZulu-Natal and during one stint in Pietermaritzburg last year Maharaj set aside a life imprisonment sentence against a young man convicted of raping a nine-year-old. Maharaj found that the lower court had “over-emphasised the seriousness of the crime and the interest of society and failed to accord sufficient weight to the personal circumstances of the appellant”.
He then considered “substantial and compelling circumstances” including the relative youthfulness of the perpetrator, that he was asthmatic, had a low level of education and, remarkably, that there was “no evidence of serious injury to the complainant or her emotional state” before replacing the life sentence with twenty years in jail.
In between all this, he has handed down a five year sentence to a mother who faked the kidnapping of her baby — triggering a province-wide hunt by police — to avoid a paternity dispute and sentenced the infamous “Blue Light Stalker” to 21 years behind bars for indecent assault, amongst other charges. The “Blue Light Stalker”, Ismail Sheik, was a police reservist who preyed on young women leaving nightclubs by coercing them into sex acts with threats of imprisonment for drunken driving, smoking cannabis, et cetera. His victims were as young as seventeen-years-old and following a four-year-trial Sheik was finally sentenced in 2007 — he promptly disappeared and is yet to be imprisoned.
Maharaj has not escaped his own legal troubles. He was arrested on fraud charges in 2000. These related to his imposing fines on litigants which included payments to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the setting up of a creche at the magistrate’s court with some of the money landing in the hands of a certain “Mr Smit”.
The charges were withdrawn later that year but Maharaj went on to sue the state for R1-million for pain and suffering. In dismissing his case, with costs, high court judge, Piet Koen, found that the original charges brought against Maharaj by the state were justified.
Maharaj holds a BJuris from the University of Durban Westville and an LLB from the University of Zululand. He joined the Department of Justice as a prosecutor in 1987 and was appointed to the magistracy in 1993. He became a regional magistrate in 2006 and has acted as the regional court president in Durban several times.
April 2018 Interview Synopsis:
The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) raised their concerns about charges of fraud that had been laid against Maharaj concerning sentences he had handed down which included fines to be paid to various organisations including a crèche at the magistrates court. (See more details in Maharaj’s profile above).
He told the commission these fines were based on a precedent at the then Transvaal division of the high court and that “there was nothing untoward in terms of personal benefit”. Maharaj also acknowledged that he had unsuccessfully sued the National Prosecuting Authority with regard to these charges which were eventually dropped. No member of the JSC quizzed Maharaj on the high court’s finding that he did appear to have a case to answer to regarding the original charges.
Maharaj attempted to bat away concerns raised by Advocates for Transformation (AFT) — about his temperament and rudeness — by stating “there is a purpose in trying to be firm” with lawyers in court because “it is a matter of productivity”.
He reminded the commission that there were no complaints lodged against him with the regional court president. Advocate Thabani Masuku, however, countered that the allegations against him had less to do with him being firm but that Maharaj had been “blatantly rude”, “abrupt”, “discourteous” and that he had “berated” a witness.
Maharaj said in this instance the witness, a medical doctor called in to testify in a case where a mother had murdered her new-born child, had avoided coming to court on several occasions because he was tending to his practise — and had thus retarded justice.
Maharaj eventually conceded that one “can work on your demeanour”. He was also quizzed on his lack of experience in hearing civil matters and came a cropper on his rape sentencing record where he had reduced prescribed minimum life sentences for the rape of minors to as little as 25 years. He described the factors to be considered when not adhering to minimum sentencing guidelines as “so elastic” – suggesting they did not provide any firm guidelines for him, or other magistrates and judges.
Maharaj said his contributions to transformation included lecturing law students at the Umlazi campus of the University of Zululand and authoring a book about criminal law.