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Professor Karthy Govender

Interview Synopsis:

An academic at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Professor Karthy Govender was interrogated at length by the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) Julius Malema about issues at that institution during the first interview of the October sitting of the Judicial Service Commission.

The questions included a 2008 row where the then dean of the university’s law faculty, Michael Cowling, was accused of doctoring his CV to include LLM qualifications from Cambridge University — Cowling apparently only obtained an LLB from the university.

Malema, the Economic Freedom Fighters member of parliament on the commission, asked Govender: “Would I be correct to say that you were part of the people who defended Michael Cowling?”

Govender denied defending Cowling and repeatedly stated to Malema — who seemed to have the bit between his cross-examining teeth, relentlessly questioning — that he had made a “proposal” at a public meeting at the university that Cowling be given the opportunity to defend himself.

Cowling reportedly resigned without giving a full explanation as to the discrepancies between his CV and the records at the British university. Malema later quizzed Govender about building contracts from UKZN that were apparently awarded to a company owned by his brother. Govender said that he was unaware of the contracts, and their nature and status, as the “university procurement process was done centrally”.

Govender previously appeared before the JSC a year ago. Then, his lack of court experience, both in the adversarial trenches of working as an advocate and adjudicating matters on the Bench, caused consternation among commissioners. Likewise the notion that the pace and workload of the courts were unsuited to academics.

This was raised again by, amongst others, Advocate Mike Hellens SC, with Govender, again, pointing to his experience adjudicating matters at the Film and Publications Appeal Board Tribunal and as a commissioner at the South African Human Rights Commission.

ANC member of the National Council of Provinces, Jomo Nyambi, quizzed Govender on his understanding of judicial independence and judicial accountability. To the former, Govender response that on a “basic level, it means no-one tells a judge to adjudicate a matter” and also extended to security of tenure and institutional independence. To the latter, Govender stated that judges were accountable to the Constitution.

Govender, whose interview lasted for approximately an hour, was admitted to the Bar in 1987 and appeared as a junior counsel on several landmark cases, including the 1996 matter which certified the country’s current Constitution.

Acting deputy chief justice, Bess Nkabinde, who was filling in for Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng as commission chairperson wondered why Govender, having had the “privilege” of working on such seminal cases hadn’t, as a black lawyer in a new democracy continued “to assist in developing our jurisprudence”.

Govender replied that he felt his work at the human rights commission had assisted in that regard.