SOUTH AFRICANS may be suffering under a collective delusion, the rule of law. If one reads the latest round of media commentary, we are either stricken with a hopelessly corrupt judicial system, or driven by ulterior motives to question an infallible judiciary. In this binary view judges are either devils in black robes, or angels and saints in silk who can do no wrong.
The reality is that for the most part, we have an imperfect system inherited from a period of apartheid and colonialism. A time when citizens were not accorded equal rights and status before the law.
Attend judges chambers at the High Court of South Africa in Cape Town, and you will be greeted by the portraiture of past judge presidents on floor one, going all the way back to the Cape Colony and Apartheid. Obscene pictures of Centlivres et al, still hang from the walls in an eerie twilight reminiscent of that macabre republic. Our institutions however, are rather proud of their racist lineage, and the tainted display is headed up by a current photograph of a grinning judge president Hlophe, still under investigation by the JSC for misconduct.
Under the present system, the process of impeachment of sitting judges who possess tenure, requires a supermajority in Parliament. The process for the removal of acting judges on the other hand, those drawn from the profession on an ad hoc basis is less clear. The manner in which such persons gain authority, often in conflict with their standing as directors of various law firms and businesses, is an awkward one.
For Raymond Edward Chalom, who has been in the legal profession for almost 50 years, the judiciary is a hotbed of corruption. He says “judges are appointed on the basis of friendship, trade-offs between lobby groups in the sector and affiliation to legal bodies rather than history, legal minds and experience.” I can only concur with this observation and possess an as yet unserved affidavit alongside supporting documents, demonstrating the resulting corruption of influence and manifest bias by a well-known member of the profession.
The process of judicial reform has not been easy. The South African system is really just an elegant compromise, for the most part, a sorry colonial edifice to which several innovations such as Family Court, Equality Court and the apex Constitutional Court have been bolted.
And therein lies the rub, since our constitution, a visionary, civil rights document if ever there was one, requires that all citizens gain untrammeled access to rights yet is seemingly oblivious to the reality of a legal process that is overly circuitous and expensive at best. The justice system in our country has unfortunately turned into a mere business system, one designed for millionaires and their cohorts in management and the professions, but where access to justice for ordinary citizens is a practical and tragic impossibility.
Witness Steven Friedman’s recent column in Business Day. According to the newspaper’s resident lefty in the debate among middle-class people which shapes politics, hardly anyone undermines courts and judges. In stating the obvious, (qui bono, who benefits?) Friedman avoids the uncomfortable fact that the majority of the country’s citizens are neither middle-class, nor possessed of sufficient financial clout required to be considered readers of his own column. The working class is drawn from the ranks of the dispossessed, the downtrodden and unemployed, for want of a better phrase.
The reality for most of us, living in the aftermath of a crime against humanity, and several decades of misrule by the ANC, is that nearly every legal issue these days, ends up turning into an expensive constitutional drama, one which only the apex court is able to rectify, resulting in the juniorisation of the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal.
For instance it took nearly three decades to end cannabis prohibition via the courts while effecting a delay on the promise of rights gained in 1994.
Sadly the lower courts with one or two exceptions, (cannabis is an exception) have shown themselves either powerless or reticent to enforce new freedoms, preferring to solicit business for the entangled profession. Our Bill of Rights for such individuals is little more than a ‘carrot on a stick’, bread and butter for an academy that has seen fit to create exclusion after exclusion to our rights.
Witness my own troubles with gaining access to legal aid in a matter affecting the life of the TRC and its final report (Lewis v Legal Aid SA). Application dismissed by AJ Martin without so much as leave, in the process creating a racist and unacceptable exclusion to the Preamble to our Constitution. Racism on the bench here has simply grown in leaps and bounds.
The Constitution, for all intents and purposes, adopted in a piecemeal fashion in 1996, has meant that the status quo for the most of us, still resembles the old order, while the new order which was meant to be, including our rights and freedoms, has vanished like a chimera.
Take a problem inherent to any system overly reliant upon the settling of disputes by intermediaries known as attorneys. In this jury-less world, professional jurists, comprising entirely of members of the self-same profession of law, adjudicate and interpret law, and then deem themselves fit to determine the facts.
The result is a system that is not evidence-based as such but rather scholastic, obscurantist, medieval. The Earth circles the Sun, well that’s just an opinion so far as these hucksters are concerned.
When it comes to facts about apartheid, the profession has not been exactly the cradle of rocket scientists. Witness PW Botha’s successful defense of his racist position in the face of a subpoena by the TRC. Or Wouter Basson, a darling of the courts.
South Africa is certainly stricken by an over-reliance on interpretation and opinion. Not evidence-based terrain so much as thick, fat, obscenely bureaucratic, opinion-based largess writ large. Access to a jury option in capital crimes and defamation cases would put such quibbles to rest.
Spare a thought for the victims of rape, in case after case, often dropped by the justice system, or reduced in value by the lack of mandatory sentencing for offenders, making rape no longer a capital crime in South Africa so far as the law is concerned.
On the whole South Africa’s legal system is too caught up with kowtowing to prevailing authority from the old days, to notice when it gets science spectacularly wrong. Instead of deriving truth from facts, as a nation, we tend to derive truth from ideology, in this respect our legal system is no different. Ditto the debate on legal positivism, and a position that is increasingly absent in our supposed secular world.
Attorney’s writing up judgements, well, that’s just par for the course.
Acting judges advertising their services and experience on the bench to clients when they’re not moonlighting as articled clerks — just another modern innovation in letters.
Apartheid happened, separate development, the Land Act — all facts not speculative conjecture, as our courts have deemed fit under the Cheadle Doctrine, while slipping into a void of fantasy and fable. Apartheid denial is the very essence of a decision handed down by the labour court in 2010, in which I myself am the complainant.
Where jokes have abounded that ‘the rule of law so frequently turns into the law of rules’, I merely have to cite my own sad experience with a rotten system to observe that the law has failed us all miserably.