Mogoeng, the devil and the anti-vaxxers
In his weekly letter to the nation, published on the 25th January, President Ramaphosa advised us all that South Africa “… will soon receive its first consignment of COVID-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute in India, which is the world’s largest vaccine producer.” (Source)
This should come as a relief to South Africans who are suffering under a spike in COVID-19 cases, and an extended lockdown, both of which are causing significant economic damage. Health care workers will be the first to receive the vaccine, and then vulnerable groups, followed by the rest of the population.
One of the top 10 treats to global health
Ironically, this news may not be a relief at all to some and may only add to the generalised anxiety provoked by the pandemic. The World Health Organisation described vaccine hesitancy – “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines” – as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019, adding that they felt it threatened to “reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases”. (Source) However, in South Africa in particular, we are finding that vaccine hesitancy characterises many individual’s response to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The World Health Organisation described vaccine hesitancy – “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines” – as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019…”
The most prominent South African who has openly spoken about his concerns about the virus has been the Chief Justice. As has been reported in December 2020, while Justice Mogoeng was leading a group in prayer at Tembisa hospital, he said: “If there be any (Covid-19) vaccine that is the work of the devil meant to infuse 666 in the lives of the people, meant to corrupt their DNA … may it be destroyed by fire.” (Source)
Following a challenge from the Progressive Health Forum calling on the Chief Justice to retract his statement, the Chief Justice doubled down on his position days later at the release of the annual report from the judiciary.
“I’m not going to be begging for permission to pray – never. In public and in private, I’m going to pray all the more. It is my Constitutional right – I am a Christian and I am not going to be hypocritical. Being a robust Christian in public and in private, I pretend, maybe so that when I deliver judgments that are in line with my Christian principals, people cannot spot it. I’m not that guy. We need to be open and we need to be transparent and that’s where I am.” – Chief Justice Mogoeng
This position has been challenged by African Alliance, who have laid a complaint against him at the Judicial Service Commission. (Source) They allege that he has breached the Judicial Code of Conduct. (For more on conduct processes against judges click here: https://www.judgesmatter.co.za/conduct/ )
“The alliance called on the Judicial Conduct Committee to urgently review and deal with the complaint to protect the public investments made in a Covid-19 vaccine. In their affidavit, the organisation argues that Mogoeng’s statements were dangerous because they lessened the public trust in vaccines.” (Source)
Three complaints against Chief Justice Mogoeng in one year
This is, to our knowledge, one of three complaints lodged against the Chief Justice in the last year. The second complaint was by Africa for Palestine, following the Chief Justice making some very controversial comments about Israel. As Judges Matter commented at the time, “It is highly unusual for any judge, let alone the head of the judiciary, to comment publicly on such a politically sensitive topic, and one that touches directly on foreign policy, which is determined by the ‘political’ branches of government, i.e. the Executive and Parliament.” (Read more here). That complaint has also been referred to the Judicial Conduct Committee.
Questioning the impartiality of a Judge
In addition to the above, Judges Matter reiterates that Judges speak through their judgments. This has been, to a certain extent, supported by the former DJP Moseneke in his book titled ‘All Rise’. He notes that it has been an unsaid but well-observed rule of social interaction among judges not to have conversations about religion, politics and sex (pg. 233). These are topics which lead to the impartiality of any Judge being questioned.
Moseneke specifically states that “a judicial officer may worship, or not, in any manner they choose, they may join any religious tendency. A judge is a bearer of religious, cultural and political rights like any other citizen, but they may not allow their politics, culture or religion to intrude into the judicial functions.” (pg. 233) These are sentiments which we agree with. Whenever a judge is not speaking thought judgments, he or she needs to be cautious of his or her judicial role and the need to safeguard his or her neutrality and avoid undue controversy.
“A judge is a bearer of religious, cultural and political rights like any other citizen, but they may not allow their politics, culture or religion to intrude into the judicial functions.”- Former DJP Moseneke, ‘All Rise’ pg 233
The third complaint was by Judge President Hlophe, who accused Mogoeng of being blinded by his Christian faith, of being anti-Muslim, and among other things, embarking on an irregular decision-making process in considering Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath’s complaint.
What judges say matters
A regular response on our social media pages to the Chief Justice’s comments has been that he did not say in terms that he believes that the devil means to infuse 666 in the lives of the people, and corrupt their DNA, but rather that the Chief Justice is praying to save us from this fate. Unfortunately, the problem that we all face here is that the Chief Justice did not debunk the idea that we might be infused by the mark of the beast in a vaccine, and that while he may have been praying, his words are words that hold sway for many South Africans. Figures such as Mogoeng, who hold space in the public mindset should be promoting and encouraging the vaccine, especially at times such as these.
The Judicial Conduct Committee has yet to indicate how it is going to deal with all these complaints. But for now, what we know is true is that for the success of the country’s COVID-19 response, it is going to be important to get out ahead of any and all disinformation on the vaccine and make it clear that the vaccine is safe and effective and should be taken as soon as it is available.