Judges air dirty laundry in JSC interviews

2014-10-07 19:19

Niren Tolsi

Free State High Court Judge Mahube Molemela was promoted to judge president of the division on a day when that Bench’s dirty linen dominated the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) interviews of prospective judges in Cape Town.

What Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng today described as an “explosion at leadership level” in the Free State judiciary – the spat between former Free State judge president Thekiso Musi and the current acting incumbent, Mojalefa Rampai – seeped through the interviews of the four candidates as the commission appeared concerned about stabilising a fractured court.

Rampai, who was also vying for the position, was quizzed for about two hours by the commission about the “explosion” that started when Western Cape High Court judge Nathan Erasmus was parachuted into the province following the retirement of former Free State Judge President Thekiso Musi.

The introduction of Erasmus – an “unprecedented” move in South African judicial circles, according to Rampai, where deputy judge presidents usually steer the ship of provincial divisions until a permanent replacement is confirmed – led to an unseemly falling out that included Rampai writing a letter of complaint to the justice minister and Musi subsequently responding.

The matter had been raised during Rampai’s previous interview for the position in April this year after which the commission decided to leave the post unfilled and re-advertise it.

Mogoeng said he was “concerned” about the “strange language”, “tone” and “biting sarcasm” of Rampai’s letter which included allegations that Musi had “deliberately marginalised [Rampai] in an autocratic style” and “drastically eroded [his] powers”.

Rampai admitted that he had “lost my mind … I’m apologising openly today, and to the commission and its honourable members”.

Rampai said he had acted emotionally because both he and Musi had “grown up together” in the Free State division where he had followed the retired judge president as only the second black judge of the division, and that he had “felt betrayed” by the decision to bring in Erasmus.

The appointment of Rampai to permanently head the division appeared an increasingly receding possibility as it emerged in the three interviews preceding his that there were problems within the division under his leadership.

During her interview, Molemela described the situation in Bloemfontein as “not rosy” and was critical of the “court roll [being] circulated very very late” creating “uncertainty” among judges who did not know where “you are going next week”.

Another candidate, Free State High Court Jake Moloi, noted that during Musi’s tenure “information [including the circulation of minutes] was flowing very easily, which enhances the performance of the court”.

“What has happened since then is that information is picked up all over the place … second-hand, and it would appear that some people get better information than others - especially our white colleagues. That is a problem and it needs to be addressed,” said Moloi, who suggested both Rampai and Erasmus were culpable.

With several of the commissioners, including Mogoeng and National Council of Provinces chairperson Thandi Modise, noting the Constitutional requirement for the judiciary to “broadly reflect” the country’s demographics and that female representation was severely lacking, both Rampai and Moloi’s chances appeared limited.

The commission also appeared concerned about the ramifications of making an appointment, like Rampai’s, that may further destabilise the division.

Responding to a question from Mogoeng about the steps she would take to pacify potentially disgruntled colleagues, Molemela said she would rely on her arbitration skills honed at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

During her interview, Free State judge Connie Mocumie laid down the gauntlet to the chief justice and new justice minister Michael Masutha that they needed to do everything possible to ensure there was a wider pool of female candidates from which the commission could consider and recommend judges to President Jacob Zuma for appointment.

When quizzed on what she would do to ensure more female candidates emerged in the Free State, Mocumie said she was “challenging” Masutha and Mogoeng for more money for a mentorship programme. She also urged female members of this newly constituted commission to fight “this man thing” of “guys clubbing together” and to take up the gender transformation issue at the JSC.

The commission grappled with candidates over issues including the sentencing of rape offenders, the challenges that female legal practitioners face in their career progression and transformation.

Molemela, responded to Free State premier Ace Magashule’s question about whether one was sacrificing merit at the altar of transformation by saying: “I don’t mean to be cocky but I think if you appoint me you will not appoint me purely on gender”. It would be “a meritorious” appointment. “I have skills”.

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