October 2016 Interview synopsis:
Race and race relations in KwaZulu-Natal was again to the fore in the third and final interview for the high court vacancy in that province.
Advocate Ian Topping SC seemed to be having a relatively easy interview until, towards the end, Economic Freedom Fighter’s member of parliament Julius Malema pushed him on his recollection of his childhood growing up on a farm where he learnt the Zulu language and its culture and customs.
Topping, who has “a working knowledge of Zulu”, had recalled only having black friends until the age of twelve, and growing up at the feet of their parents which proved “formative of how I treat people and different cultures” — both in and out of court.
Malema started quizzing Topping on his knowledge of rituals and practises linked to ceremonies like a Zulu customary marriage. Topping apologetically professed to having no knowledge of these customs. Malema responded that “friends” would be au fait with that sort of detail before he stepped up the onslaught by suggesting there were other power dynamics inherent in Topping’s nostalgia that the lawyer appeared oblivious to, and that his recollection was “patronising and bordering on racism”.
“Sharing a farm doesn’t mean you grew up together,” said Malema who was unequivocal that Topping needed to check his privilege and how he presented his childhood to the Judicial Service Commission.
Topping, who had previously interviewed for judicial appointment in April 2016, was then asked by Advocate Ismail Semenya why he wanted to be a judge: “I think, honestly, because I can make a positive contribution,” he responded, adding that he felt he had the requisite experience, temperament and qualifications to do the job well.
When asked by Acting Deputy Chief Justice Bess Nkabinde how he, as a judicial officer, struck that “delicate balance” in his judgments so as to ensure the separation of powers doctrine was observed, Topping stressed it was essential to stay “within the confines of the law” since whether one was a member of the judiciary, executive and the legislative “you know what you are allowed to do…”