Current Position: Judge at the Gauteng Division of the High Court
The humanist solidarity which has driven North Gauteng High Court judge Jody Kollapen — a former head of the South African Human Rights Commission — can be found in his early familial influences: His mother, an attendee of the 1956 Women’s March, who was twice arrested for her involvement in the passive resistance movement of the 1950s. An uncle who, despite not studying law, served as a “kind of paralegal” in his Marabastad community and caused him to pursue his legal studies.
The uncle, Kollapen told the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) during his unsuccessful 2017 interview for a position on the Constitutional Court Bench, taught him that the law, “despite the horror of society, could make a difference… that the law can form the basis for the social reconstruction of our society.”
Kollapen appears a “big picture judge” who is emboldened by the transformative vision of the Constitution and the potential for the law to create a more equitable society. If the JSC, and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, are keen to ensure the Constitutional Court retains a diversity of legal approaches and intellectualisms, Kollapen would be an interesting foil for the likes of Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and Justice Chris Jafta who are considered legal formalists — especially with the imminent retirements of justices Edwin Cameron and Johan Froneman.
After the 2017 vacancy was filled by Justice Leona Theron, Kollapen served two acting terms at the Constitutional Court.
During that time, he adjudicated, and wrote a minority dissenting judgment, in a matter involving the body which will be interviewing him, the JSC. In Helen Suzman Foundation v Judicial Service Commission the applicants had sought to make public the private deliberations of the JSC in deciding which candidates to nominate to the president for appointment. The Helen Suzman Foundation argued that these could be disclosed under rule 53(1)(b) of the Uniform Rules of Court as part of the record of its proceedings.
The High Court held that they could not. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Appeal held that while they were not necessarily excluded from the record, in the circumstances of this case they should not be included in the record.
The majority of the Constitutional Court found there were no reasons to exclude deliberations, as a class of information, from the rule 53 record. Further, the court found that the JSC’s concerns about confidentiality were overstated, and did not entitle it to refuse to disclose the recordings of the deliberations. The appeal was upheld, and the JSC was ordered to deliver the full record of the proceedings.
Jafta dissented, holding that the word ‘record’ in rule 53 did not incorporate the JSCs deliberations.
Kollapen, with fellow acting judge Dumisani Zondi concurring, wrote a separate dissenting judgment. Kollapen observed that “in the wide sense” the case “may have relevance for the judiciary — its independence, integrity, efficacy and, in particular, the calibre of those who constitute it.”
“Openness is also double-sided. It is imperative that what is constitutionally necessary is seen and heard. However, in order to ventilate what must be seen and heard and to preserve certain core constitutional values, there also has to be an environment in which open and uncensored debate flourishes. In some instances, confidentiality is necessary to ensure such an environment exists, so that what must be shown and said is brought into the light, to factor into constitutionally necessary debates.”
Kollapen found that the JSC’s deliberations were relevant to the decision under review, and should therefore be included in the record, unless there was a legal justification for their exclusion. He further found that maintaining the confidentiality of JSC deliberations was constitutionally sustainable, however, and necessary, to protect “multiple constitutional values”, the integrity and independence of the judiciary and to protect the interests of candidates, JSC members and the institutions itself.
In SS v VVS, a matter disputing additional maintenance payments for a minor child before the Constitutional Court, it emerged during hearings that the applicant was in substantial arrears with his basic maintenance obligations.
Kollapen, for a majority, held that this non-payment could not pass without consequence — despite it not being the main thrust of the hearings — as it would “undermine judicial integrity”.
The matter was postponed and the applicant ordered to pay respondent’s costs as well as maintenance payments. When the matter was eventually heard, the applicant conceded that he had still not settled his maintenance arrears.
Kollapen found that if the applicant was allowed to proceed the interests of justice would be undermined, the potency of judicial authority undermined and “it will send a chilling message to litigants that orders of court may well be ignored with no consequence”. The application for leave to appeal was dismissed. Applicant was ordered to pay respondent’s costs on a scale of attorney and client.
A judge of the North Gauteng High Court since 2011, Kollapen has adjudicated interesting cases, including ordering a father to return to his teenage daughter a horse that he had removed from a stable as punishment and telling warring factions of the International Pentecost Holiness Church to work together.
In the infamous Limpopo text-book saga of 2012, Kollapen reprimanded the National Education Department and its provincial counterpart for its failure to deliver textbooks to schools in the province. He handed down a structural order outlining deadlines for textbook deliveries.
In Hennie and Others v Minister of Correctional Services and Others, Kollapen granted an urgent interdict allowing prisoners to use laptops in their cells for study purposes. He found that while “security considerations will always remain an important feature of how a correctional facility is managed,” a refusal to allow inmates access to computers in their cells, “has the real risk of compromising their ability to study and infringes on their right to further education”.
In 2016, Kollapen wrote the majority judgment for a full high court Bench in AfriForum & Another v Chairperson of the Council of the University of Pretoria and Others. The court was asked to set aside a decision by the University of Pretoria to replace Afrikaans with English as the main medium of instruction. Kollapen found that while the Constitution provides for people to be educated in the language of their choice, this could not negate considerations of race and equity. He noted that the university had been “responsive” to the constitutional rights of Afrikaans students seeking to learn in Afrikaans.
“Being responsive can hardly equate to having to positively respond to the request made. What it requires is … to consider the request and determine whether [it] is reasonably practicable… [T]his exercise, as required, was undertaken with a high level of engagement, thoroughness and transparency and the ultimate conclusion that it would not be reasonably practicable was reached after a proper consideration of all the necessary and relevant factors in a context-sensitive understanding within which the claim was located.”
He holds a B.Proc and LLB from the University of Witwatersrand and has a long history of human rights activism. While practising as an attorney, Kollapen coordinated the Release Political Prisoners programme at Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR). He also worked on important anti-apartheid cases, including the Delmas Treason Trial.
Kollapen has served on the board of several public interest litigation organisations, including the Legal Resources Centre, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.
When interviewed by the JSC for the high court position he currently occupies, Kollapen had assured the commission that his activism would not affect his judgments.
He, however, was clear about the transformative role the judiciary should play in South Africa and was mindful of the inaccessibility of the courts for the poor:
“Judges should remain human and uphold human dignity. A judge needs to be mindful of the enormous amount of resources it takes to get to court,” Kollapen said.
April 2017 Interview:
April 2017 Interview synopsis:
The former head of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) started his interview responding to biographical questions which revealed an early attuning to the humanist solidarity that he has demonstrated throughout his adult life.
Kollapen talked about the early influences of his mother — still around at 91years-old and an attendee of the 1956 Women’s March — who was arrested twice, once at the age of twenty, for her involvement in the passive resistance movement gathering momentum against apartheid.
He also described the influence of an uncle who, despite not studying law, served as a “kind of paralegal” in his Marabastad community and caused him to pursue his legal studies.
The uncle, Kollapen told the Judicial Service Commission, imparted to his younger self the notion that the law, “despite the horror of society could make a difference… that the law can form the basis for the social reconstruction of our society.”
Kollapen assured commissioners that while he did not have as much judicial experience as the other candidates, his background at the SAHRC and the Law Reform Commission would add to the richness and diversity of background and experience at the Constitutional Court. He described going into the field to investigate issues ranging from socio-economic challenges people experienced to discrimination based on their sexuality, and said it was “sobering”.
It helped him “develop an understanding that the Constitution is not just about legal norms, but also values and ethics,” Kollapen said.
Kollapen was asked by commissioner Mike Hellens SC to talk through how he would approach a case where he had to review a decision or action by the executive or parliament while being mindful of the separation of powers doctrine.
He responded by noting that “the separation of powers is not an absolute separation” because the courts are called upon to make a judgment on the actions of the other arms of government. Kollapen added that the Constitutional Court had delivered precedent-setting judgments like National Treasury and Others v Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance and Others which helped set out how far courts could reach in these cases. Kollapen added that he was aware that, if the executive made a decision based on a series of choices, the role of a judge was not to review and say “which is the best choice” but to assess the rationality behind the executive reaching its final decision.
When quizzed on the role of the judiciary in the enforcement of socio-economic rights, Kollapen recognised that a “vote without food, may well be meaningless” before noting that the “standards of reasonableness” had been developed to test government’s delivery on these rights.
Kollapen also said he was “encouraged” by the development of the “concept of meaningful engagement” by the Constitutional Court which “consolidates the notion of participatory democracy” and ensured democracy was not diminished to the mere act of voting at the polls every five years.