Sprinkles late. Morning clouds. Mild.
The story of Nkandla is all too familiar. Yet, I got goose bumps when Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron relayed it to judges from across the continent who had gathered in Cape Town this week.
Cameron’s story unfolded in parable fashion. He described the controversy that arose over “a president whose private residence was vastly improved – at the cost to the public purse of hundreds of millions”.
He recounted the intervention of the Public Protector, President Jacob Zuma’s stubbornness, Parliament’s failure to hold him to account and the dramatic climax – on March 31 last year – when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered a unanimous ruling. The judgment that put the president in his place was broadcast live.
Mogoeng broke with the court’s usual practice of reading out only a short formal synopsis of its decision. Instead, he read out an expansive summary of the judgment.
“It had the clarity of a sermon, the simplicity of a great judgment and the urgency and passion of an imperative call to national duty. Viewers and listeners across the country were electrified,” Cameron told the prestigious gathering of the Conference of Constitutional Jurisdictions of Africa (CCJA).
“The judgment was a historic moment in the life of our democracy,” he said.
Cameron drove home his message to assembled judges – many of whom face severe pressure from governments in their home countries – that the ability to secure compliance from the highest office in the land had been made possible because of “courageous and assertive and truthful judges” who were committed to the common good.
He was doffing his cap to Mogoeng who, when appointed by the president in 2011, was perceived to be a conservative Zuma yes-man who would be deferential to the executive.
In his welcoming remarks to the gathering, Mogoeng also told a story.
In 1902, US President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a pal, Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, to the Supreme Court. He expected that their friendship would work to his advantage.
But Holmes later ruled against the president in a significant railroad monopoly case, demonstrating that he was his own man.
Mogoeng said Holmes “preferred judicial independence, integrity and character over the favours that politicians might dish out to those who are weak and prepared to have the system corrupted”.
Mogoeng added that, rather than become corrupt “puppets”, judges should be prepared to die if need be. He referred to the murder in Ghana of three High Court judges in 1982, cases which have never been solved.
“When you become a judge you know that there are risks,” he told delegates.
Mogoeng’s office has been exposed to risk. There was a break-in last month, and the only items stolen were computers containing important information about judges and officials.
Hinting at the sinister nature of the incident, his office described the theft as “a huge setback for the entire administration of justice”.
Our Chief Justice in the green robe was elected president of the CCJA at the close of the conference, which was aptly themed “the promotion of an independent judiciary and the rule of law”.
May he and his peers continue to find the courage that Cameron speaks of to respond effectively to a call for national duty.
Heard is Media 24 parliamentary editor
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