Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
22 March 2012

A worrying attack on the Rule of Law

The decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) on Tuesday in the Jacob Zuma case, must come as a political – but not yet as much of a legal – blow to President Jacob Zuma. Coming just as the unofficial succession debate is hotting up, this judgment will provide some ammunition to President Zuma’s opponents inside the ANC as it will remind party activist and ordinary voters alike that Zuma had a corruption case to answer, that his financial advisor was convicted of bribing him but that he never got his day in court to clear his name.

It is important to note that the decision does not deal with the merits of the case brought by the DA, as the NDPP and the President have been using stalling tactics to ensure that this case is not finalized before the ANC elective conference this December. The question of whether the decision of the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) to drop all corruption charges against Jacob Zuma was unlawful and should be set aside, will only be considered once an appeal of this judgment had been finalised by the Constitutional Court, and then only if the Constitutional Court confirms the SCA judgment.

Legally there is therefore still a long way to go. Even if the Constitutional Court confirms the SCA judgment, the merits of the case will then have to be ventilated in the High Court and will almost certainly be appealed to the SCA and then the Constitutional Court. But the Constitutional Court judgment might well be finalized before December, which would mean that if the SCA judgment is confirmed, the NDPP will have to hand over almost all relevant documents which were considered by the NDPP when he made the controversial decision to drop charges against Zuma to the court. The NDPP would not have to hand over the written submissions made to the NPA on behalf of Zuma as these documents are confidential – unless President Zuma waives his right to confidentiality in this regard.

As Navsa J explained, this will present difficult choices for the NDPP and for President Zuma, as they run the risk of ultimately losing the case if they fail to put sufficient documents before the court to legally justify the decision to drop the charges against the President. Such information, crucially, will have to include evidence of the tape recordings which ostensibly led to the dropping of charges as well as evidence about the way the tapes were obtained and by whom they were made. I quote from the judgment.

In the event of an order compelling production of the record, the office of the NDPP will be obliged to make available whatever was before Mr Mpshe when he made the decision to discontinue the prosecution. It will then fall to the reviewing court to assess its value in answering the questions posed in the review application. If the reduced record provides an incomplete picture it might well have the effect of the NDPP being at risk of not being able to justify the decision. This might be the result of Mr Zuma’s decision not to waive the confidentiality of the representations made by him. On the other hand, a reduced record might redound to the benefit of the NDPP and Mr Zuma.

Interestingly, the SCA decided not to deal with the question of whether a decision by the NPA to drop charges constituted administrative action under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA). Instead it found that the decision was reviewable under section 1(c) of the Constitution. This is where the curious statement of the ANC becomes relevant. In the statement following the judgment the ANC said, amongst others:

This matter, whilst it receives a deeper legal analysis, we however want to highlight the following:

  • The continued attempt by the DA to use the Courts to undermine and paralyse government.
  • The granting of blanket permission to political parties to can review any State decisions, using Courts.
  • How the DA will conduct a review of the case when it can`t have access to all the information which informed the NDPPs decision, to withdraw the charges.

Given these facts, it is clear that democracy can be undermined by simply approaching courts to reverse any decision arrived at by a qualified organ of State.

Leaving aside for the moment that the NPA is not part of government as suggested by the statement, but in fact an independent body that must make decisions on whether to charge and prosecute somebody “without fear, favour or prejudice, the statement shows a worrying lack of understanding of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law requires, at a minimum, that public power must be exercised in accordance with the law and in a rational manner. The ANC statement suggests that when the government of the day (or in this case the NPA) acted illegally (in the sense that it ignored the law or was not authorised by law to act or where there was no rational relationship between the act and the reasons given for the act, then a political party should not be allowed to approach a court to challenge this flouting of the law and the Constitution as this would open the floodgates of litigation, would undermine all organs of state and would paralyse government.

As I see it, this seems like an extraordinary admission on the part of the ANC that the government it heads flouts the law and the Constitution so regularly that it would be completely paralysed if it is taken to court every time this happens. Why else would political parties flood the courts (spending millions of Rand they could have spent on election campaigns) unless they believe they can prove that the government has flouted the law. I am not sure the statement was meant to make this admission, but that is the necessary implication of it. The SCA dealt with the floodgates argument in the following (to my mind convincing) passage, starting with a quote from a High Court judgment:

“One of the principal objections often raised against the adoption of a more flexible approach to the problem of locus standi the floodgates will thereby be opened, giving rise to an uncontrollable torrent of litigation. It is well, however, to bear in mind a remark made by Mr Justice Kirby, President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal, in the course of an address at the Tenth Anniversary Conference of the Legal Resources Centre, namely that it may sometimes be necessary to open the floodgates in order to irrigate the arid ground below them. I am not persuaded by the argument that to afford locus standi to a body such as first applicant in circumstances such as these would be to open the floodgates to a torrent of frivolous or vexatious litigation against the State by cranks or busybodies. Neither am I persuaded, given the exorbitant costs of Supreme Court litigation, that should the law be so adapted cranks and busybodies would indeed flood the courts with vexatious or frivolous applications against the State. Should they be tempted to do so, I have no doubt that appropriate order of costs would soon inhibit their litigious ardour.”

Thirdly, as was pointed out by Budlender, ‘if the cases are well-founded, there can be no objection to a flood of people trying to achieve justice’.

What the ANC does not seem to understand is what is at stake here: the very essence of respect for the Rule of Law, a founding value of our Constitution contained in section 1(c) of the Constitution. That section proclaims the supremacy of the Constitution and the concomitant supremacy of the Rule of Law. In fulfilling the constitutional duty of testing the exercise of public power against the Constitution, courts are protecting the very essence of a constitutional democracy. When a political party approaches the court on a Rule of Law question, it is also helping to safeguard democracy. This principle is important, and is explained thus in the judgment:

Put simply, it means that each of the arms of government and every citizen, institution or other recognised legal entity, are all bound by and equal before the law. Put differently, it means that none of us is above the law. It is a concept that we, as a nation, must cherish, nurture and protect. We must be intent on ensuring that it is ingrained in the national psyche. It is our best guarantee against tyranny, now and in the future.

The ANC should have thanked the DA for spending pots of money to safeguard this cherished principle, money they could have spent to fight elections. This does not mean the DA will ultimately win their case. This will have to be decided afresh by the High Court. There are two aspects relating to the Rule of Law that might be relevant to this case, depending on the facts and depending on the evidence placed before a court.

First, although the judgment does not expressly say so, the NDPP would not have acted in accordance with the law and the Constitution, if he had dropped the charges on grounds not provided for in the NPA’s prosecuting policy to which the NPA is bound. What will make the NDPP’s case more difficult is that the acting NDPP, Mokothedi Mpshe, had failed to refer to the prosecuting policy at all when he provided reasons for the dropping of charges. The argument would therefore be that the charges were not dropped in accordance with this legally binding prosecution policy and was thus unlawful and an affront to the Rule of Law.

But there is a second aspect of the Rule of Law which might apply here. This is that when public power is exercised in terms of the Constitution or other legislation, this exercise of power had to be rational. As Navsa pointed out, “the rule of law also requires rationality as a prerequisite for the validity of the exercise of all public power”. This means that where somebody exercises public power, there must be a rational connection between the decision taken and the stated reasons or goal of that decision. Where reasons were cribbed from an overturned Hong Kong decision, say, the body making the decision will have some work to do to convince a court that the decision was rational.

However, it is important to note that the SCA did not endorse the view that the decision would have to be viewed on these two grounds. That, said Navsa, was a question for the high court – the court seized with the application for the review. Because arguments made by the NDPP about the extent to which the decision was reviewable were premature, it was for the High Court to determine the grounds of review. Criticising the now suspended head of the NDPP, Menzi Simelane, (which was not the first time Simelane has been criticised by our courts) on this point, the SCA remarked that it “is difficult to understand why it persisted in pursuing the appeal on this aspect. It does not reflect well on the NDPP.”

It might well be that eventually a court will decide that there are sufficient reasons to grant a permanent stay of prosecution in this case. But usually those decisions are taken by a judge, not by the NDPP. If the NDPP had acted irrationally or if it had not followed its own prosecution policy it would have flouted the law for political reasons and would have treated one person – the current President – as above the law. That is why it is important that the courts decide whether this decision was valid or not. Who knows, the evidence provided by the NDPP (and perhaps by President Zuma, if he decides to release his submissions to the NDPP) might satisfy the courts that this decision did not flout the Rule of Law.

If that were to be the case, the ANC would have again have to thank the DA for clearing this up and for helping our courts to reaffirm our confidence in our prosecuting authority. At the moment the NPA is not a body that instils much confidence with anybody, as there is some evidence that it has been politically captured by the Zuma faction inside the ANC over the past three years (and there is some evidence that it was politically captured by the Mbeki faction before that). I suspect the statement was made not because of a sudden attack of conscience or principle on the part of the ANC, but rather because the judgment provided a political opening for opponents of President Jacob Zuma and needed to be discredited.

In doing so, this statement represents a worrying attack on the Rule of Law.

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