An endurance athlete who has completed 13 Comrades Marathons and eight Two Oceans, Stephens Thobane obtained a B.Proc from the University of the North (Turfloop) in 1993. He has been running his own attorney’s practise since 2001.
Administrative positions Thobane has held since becoming a lawyer include being a founding member, and later chairperson, of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) in Mpumalanga and president of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces between 2010-2011. He has acted in the North and South Gauteng seats of the high court since 2013 for a total of 14 weeks, during which he has written approximately 45 judgments.
The Law Society of the Northern Provinces had made the Judicial Service Commission aware that attorney Stephens Thobane had not been punctual in filing his company’s audited financial reports for the past two years.
This was an issue that commissioner Narend Singh picked up on and probed Thobane on. The attorney responded that in the first instance his auditor (who had been working for him for ten years, and still does) had not signed an electronically filed copy of his financials. There was also, Thobane told the commission, a discrepancy between his auditor’s calculation of the interest in his trust account and that by the law society. This had yet to be resolved, Thobane said. In the second instance his “auditor just delayed” filing the reports, Thobane said, adding, “I’m embarrassed.”
Singh, the IFP parliamentarian on the commission, pointed out that this “borders on financial mismanagement”, to which Thobane agreed. When Singh pushed him on whether, as a sitting judge, he would be convinced by this version, Thobane pointed out that this sort of situation would probably never see the courts and listed the procedure in these instances.
This response was picked up on by Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza SC, one of four commissioners appointed by President Jacob Zuma, who suggested that Thobane, by giving a “technical” response to Singh’s question, had shied away from the more pressing philosophical and ethical aspects of it.
These included “whether on your version of events [regarding the late filing of financials]… you would be satisfied as a judge that the story about your audits is reasonably satisfactory?”
“My answer is an emphatic yes. I think I accounted,” said Thobane.
Other areas traversed by commissioners during the interview included the role and status of customary law in South Africa’s legal framework, his formative political experiences at university during the 1980s and whether Thobane was guilty of ageism.
The last theme was explored following Thobane’s comments to Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo that they had had no disagreements because the attorney didn’t confront “elders” out of respect. He then pushed on whether he would ever raise issues within the judicial hierarchy, especially if a judge president was “irresponsible” — Thobane, after a rather convoluted conversation with commissioner Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters, stated that he would not shy away from raising issues but with do it “respectfully”.