The claims that have been made against the judiciary are disturbing, and they will not be taken lightly.
“Such attacks shake the very foundations of our constitutional democracy,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his newsletter to the nation on Monday morning.
Unless supported by evidence, he said, such claims undermine confidence in our courts, and weaken our Constitutional order.
“In all our actions, we need to take heed of Section 165(3) of the Constitution, which says: No person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of the courts.
“We interfere with the functioning of our courts and weaken the rule of law when we attack the judiciary. Our failure to implement our courts’ injunctions weakens our constitutional democracy.”
Ramaphosa said the Constitution was vital to maintaining a system of checks and balances to prevent the abuse and concentration of power to the detriment of the people. He explained that the three arms of the state – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary – each have a role to play in ensuring accountability and adherence to the rule of law.
“Without these checks and balances, without each arm of the state fulfilling its responsibility, without adherence to the Constitution, our democracy is vulnerable and worthless,” he said.
“We should therefore be concerned when those who occupy prominent positions in society make statements that demonstrate a disdain for the basic principles of our Constitution and the institutions established to defend our democracy.”
Ramaphosa expressed his concern about recent comments in which some judges were accused, without any evidence, of pursuing interests other than the cause of justice.
“Judges have been accused of political agendas and some have even been accused of accepting bribes,” he said.
These claims were “deeply disturbing”:
• First, if such claims were true, it would mean that there are some within the judiciary who are failing to uphold the values and principles with which they have been entrusted.
Fortunately, our Constitution makes provision for such a possibility. The National Assembly is empowered to remove judges who are found by the Judicial Service Commission to be guilty of gross misconduct.
The Judicial Service Commission is a carefully constituted body, which includes representatives from the judiciary but also the legal profession, academia and Parliament. There are clear processes established in law to deal with allegations of misconduct against members of the judiciary.
Anyone who has evidence of any wrongdoing by any judge should make use of the avenues provided in our Constitution and in our law to ensure that appropriate action is taken.
• Second, without the presentation of evidence to support these claims, and unless referred to the relevant authorities, all that such allegations do is to undermine the judiciary and the important function that it performs in our democracy.
Of course, South Africa is a free country, with a Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. However, when some in positions of responsibility choose to use those freedoms to undermine our Constitutional order, they should be reminded of the possible consequences of their utterances.
One of these possible consequences is the erosion of trust in the judiciary and our constitutional order.
Ramaphosa quoted Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, who said in an address in 2010: “[W]ithout public confidence in the ability of the courts to dispense justice, there can be no faith in the rule of law. Without faith in the rule of law, valuable relationships of trust within society begin to break down.
“Citizens can no longer be assured that their rights will be respected. Businesses can no longer be assured that their contracts will be honored. Victims of crime can no longer be assured that justice will be served in court. Public confidence is therefore vital.
“That is why courts must not only be independent and effective; they must be seen to be independent and effective.”
Ramaphosa said attacks on the judiciary would not be taken lightly and that all South Africans had a responsibility to defend the Constitution, upon which the country’s democracy was founded.
“We have a responsibility to the generations of our forebears, many of whom gave their lives so that we may have a democratic Constitution.
We have a responsibility to the millions of South Africans who look to the Constitution for protection and relief. And we have a responsibility to future generations who will look to this Constitution as the foundation of a stable, peaceful and just nation.”