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Zondo’s first 100 days: A shaky start, some positive moves and political attacks on the judiciary

Zondo’s first 100 days: A shaky start, some positive moves and political attacks on the judiciary

Zondo’s first 100 days: A shaky start, some positive moves and political attacks on the judiciary

Today marks 100 days since Justice Raymond Zondo was appointed to be Chief Justice. His appointment came after a tumultuous process that included chaotic interviews at the Judicial Service Commission.

Although the JSC had recommended Justice Mandisa Maya, President Ramaphosa went ahead and appointed Zondo, in a move that surprised many. What has Zondo’s tenure looked like in the first 100 days, and what does this tell us about the 2 years that remain of it?

At the time of his appointment, Zondo was the most senior judge in the judiciary and had already been acting as Chief Justice for nearly a year. He stepped in as soon Chief Justice Mogoeng announced that he would be taking long leave, effectively retiring from the position as his leave would end almost to the day of his mandatory retirement.

Zondo’s appointment, therefore, symbolized a seamless transition, and possibly continuity. However, it wasn’t clear what this continuity would mean. During his interview in February, Zondo struggled to cast a compelling vision for what he intended to do once appointed. He acknowledged some of the problems facing the judiciary but provided little by way of solutions.

In the days before his 1 April start date, the Office of the Chief Justice announced a hastily-organized press briefing where Zondo was billed to speak. About what, no one knew. During the press briefing, Zondo hadn’t prepared a statement but simply invited journalists to pose questions to him. It was there that Zondo announced that his vision would be to instill and protect judicial independence.

Although unclear at the time, we now know this to mean that he would take forward the project to achieve institutional independence of the judiciary, where the budget, court administration, and other resources would be in the hands of judges themselves. On a secondary level, Zondo’s vision may also mean that he would protect the judiciary from unwarranted public attacks. So, if that is his intention, how has he fared?

Within two days of his start date, Zondo chaired the JSC’s April interview session. The JSC dedicated the first day to discussing its mandate. This was on the back of the trenchant criticism it received after the shambolic chief justice interviews and the obvious lack of any guiding criteria.

After a full day’s meeting, the JSC issued a statement confirming that it would be dusting off the 2010 criteria for judicial appointments, with a commitment that a subcommittee would review and update these criteria. Importantly, the JSC committed to treating judicial candidates with respect and dignity.

Although Zondo had already proven to be a stabilising figure to the JSC, leading to more focused interviews in October 2021, it was important that he could get these commitments in place. We are aware that since then, he has been actively involved in leading the process to develop new criteria. In our view, fixing the JSC would be one of Zondo’s signature legacy projects and it’s encouraging to learn that he is leading with a steady hand on this issue.

On 26 May Zondo chaired the National Efficiency Enhancement Committee, a national co-ordinating body established in 2012, where various stakeholders within the justice system (justice department officials, police, prosecutors, correctional services, lawyers, even social workers) meet to discuss bottlenecks causing delays in case finalisation.

The NEEC last sat in 2019 but due to its enormous size, it goes no further than to receive updates on only the most serious causes of case delays (such as the SAPS forensic labs crisis) – it takes no serious decisions. However, its true value is that it gives the chief justice a birds-eye-view of what is happening in the justice system. It would give Zondo a solid basis on which to start planning the implementation of his vision for institutional independence.

We were hoping for solid outcomes after the NEEC sat, but an OCJ statement after the meeting simply billed it as a “success” – with a commitment that there would be an additional meeting scheduled, not just the usual two. The next sitting is in August 2022. So, it is hard to read what Zondo has achieved on this score in his first 100 days, but if he maintains momentum on-court efficiency, his tenure might be positive on the judiciary.

During the last 100 days, Zondo has also faced off with Public Protector Busi Mkhwebane over the infamous Abramjee SMS scandal, and allegations of leaks from the Constitutional Court. Zondo stepped in to reassure the public that he had spoken to the justices and staff of the court, who all confirmed that there was no leak – but Zondo nevertheless instituted a formal investigation. Retired Justice Lex Mpati issued a report some weeks later confirming that there was no leak from the Apex court. Unsurprisingly, Advocate Mkhwebane was not happy with this outcome and has vowed to take it on review. However, what this incident shows is Zondo’s willingness to step up to defend the integrity of the judiciary – albeit much slower than some of us would like.

We have previously commented that it would be interesting to see if former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s succession would adopt a similarly high public profile.

Mogoeng, in contrast with his predecessors, made a large number of public speeches and other appearances, many of which fell outside the scope of what a sitting Chief Justice would normally discuss. Indeed, in one instance Mogoeng’s extra-curial comments even resulted in him being censured by the Judicial Service Commission.

Although Zondo was already a familiar face to South Africans prior to his chief justice appointment, it was expected that he would be a more sanguine figure when confirmed in office. However, he has in many ways continued the trend of the Chief Justice adopting a far more visible and outspoken presence than was the case in the past. In February, he received praise for speaking out strongly against tourism minister Lindiwe’s Sisulu’s statement that black judges were “house negroes”.

However, Zondo has also recently raised eyebrows in his comments to an eNCA camera crew, loudly supporting the call for the Gupta brothers to be extradited back to South Africa.

Whilst Zondo may have imagined himself to be wearing his hat as chair of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, the comments raise serious questions about the appropriateness of the head of the judiciary pronouncing on high-profile matters that may well still come before the courts. Furthermore, it is clear from his comments that even under Zondo’s tenure, the days of a Chief Justice speaking only through their judgments and academic lectures are over.

The incident also highlights the ongoing challenges that will be presented by Zondo’s dual role as Chief Justice and chairperson of a commission of inquiry, whose report is likely to be the subject of ongoing legal processes, but also intense public debate and scrutiny.

On another, more consequential level, Zondo’s dual role makes the judiciary vulnerable to further politicisation and political attacks”

On one level, the numerous delays in finalising the report – including the unprecedented situation of the head of the judiciary defying a court-ordered deadline –  showed Zondo’s weak administrative ability. It’s unclear if this will also translate into his role as SA’s top judge.

On another, more consequential level, Zondo’s dual role makes the judiciary vulnerable to further politicisation and political attacks, something many were hoping the new chief justice would stave off. Senior ANC leader Tony Yengeni has already filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Zondo. And many other political figures also have Zondo in their cross hairs.

Zondo’s tenure as chief justice started on a rather tumultuous footing, juggling dual roles in the judiciary and at the State Capture Commission. In his first 100 days, he has made some positive moves, especially at the JSC. We predict that he will spend the bulk of his tenure defending the judiciary from political attacks. How he will fare on that score is too soon to tell. We watch with keen eyes.


Mbekezeli Benjamin is a researcher at Judges Matter and Chris Oxtoby senior researcher at the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at UCT.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times

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