Who will judge Zuma case?

2008-07-27 00:00

The name of the judge who will occupy the “hottest” seat in the country when Jacob Zuma’s trial kicks off next week remains a closely guarded secret, but a prominent civil rights campaigner, Judge Chris Nicholson, is considered a front runner.

With the trial looming, two KwaZulu-Natal judges emerged as the most likely contenders according to sources, but the money appears to be on Nicholson.

The other possible candidate, Judge Leona Theron, was the first woman of colour to be appointed a judge in KwaZulu-Natal in October 1999 at the age of 32.

She studied law at the University of Natal in Durban. In 1990, she was awarded the Fullbright Scholarship for academic excellence and went on to obtain her Master of Laws degree in Washington. She was the first South African to receive the Commonwealth Foundation Fellowship award in 1995.

As vice president of the International Association of Women Judges, she offered public support for the campaign against women and child abuse in 2004.

Two other senior KZN judges who might be in contention are Judge President Vuka Tshabalala and Deputy Judge President Phillip Levinsohn.

Of course Tshabalala, who has gone to great lengths to keep the identity of the “Zuma judge” a secret, is at liberty to call on a retired judge or a judge from another province to handle the case, if he deems fit.

Lawyers believe Judge Herbert Msimang is excluded because he previously found in favour of Zuma when he struck the case off the roll in 2006.

This similarly could apply to Levinsohn, who has presided over “side issues” concerning the case, such as the request by the state to Mauritius for documents.

Both Nicholson and Theron have the necessary credentials in terms of seniority and experience in criminal and civil litigation.

Nicholson has long been a supporter of the “underdog” in society and active campaigner for human rights, and Zuma’s supporters are unlikely to have any gripe if he is the chosen one.

Nicholson, who was born and raised on a farm in Richmond, was the founder of the Legal Resources Centre in Durban in 1979.

He was also a founder of the first non-racial cricket club in Pietermaritzburg, Aurora.

He is a man of many talents — the author of three books to date, a sportsman and enthusiast and a lover of opera and classical music, especially Richard Wagner. His book, Richard & Adolf, explores how much Adolf Hitler was influenced by Wagner.

Friends describe him as a “cultural man”, and a keen golfer.

He went to school at Michaelhouse and excelled at school sport, particularly cricket, and went on to study law at the University of Natal.

He practised as an advocate in Windhoek and in Durban, and for a period lectured at Natal University. He took silk a year or two before his appointment to the Bench in 1995.

In an interview with Witness reporter Stephen Coan in 2004 concerning his book about the June 1985 murders of United Democratic Front activists Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli (known as the Cradock Four), Nicholson said he became very conscious of injustice under apartheid, and saw a way of dealing with what was going on through the law.

Nicholson has published a biography of legendary SA golfer Papwa Sewgolum, who fell victim to apartheid laws in 1965 when he was not allowed into the Durban Country Club to accept his Natal Open trophy and had to do so in the rain.

Nicholson’s work with the LRC aimed at redressing the pass laws and other oppressive legislation, and on behalf of political “struggle” figures in the 1980s got him into hot water with the former apartheid government.

ingrido@witness.co.za

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