[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.
Since that disastrous case, then Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson chose not to appoint an acting judge to the Constitutional Court as he was entitled to by section 175 of the Constitution. Now new Chief Justice Pius Langa has decided to appoint acting judges again and I am not sure this is a good thing.
In a closely contested case, an acting judge appointed by the Chief justice in consultation with the Minister of Justice, may hold the deciding vote. In the Chaskalson era those judges almost always voted with the Chief Justice. This means that the Chief Justice can temporarily “pack” the Court with his/her appointees and can help to secure a majority in cases where the permanent judges might normally have a majority.
Because South Africa’s Constitutional Court is not particularly divided on ideological grounds this has not yet been an issue but in years to come it may become decisive. In future, some judges may even decline to take sabbatical in fear of “ceding” his or her vote to the “opposition”, which would be rather unfortunate.
At the same time acting judges do get a chance to take part in deliberations of the Constitutional Court and can thus be “groomed” for a post on the highest court. Still, not an ideal situation.