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
14 February 2012

An unambiguous attack on constitutional democracy

In 1934 the Appeal Court in the case of Sachs v Minister of Justice; Diamond v Minister of Justice had to consider the validity of a banning order issued by the Minister of Police. Banning orders, which prohibited a person from being present in specific areas because the Minister was satisfied that the person “is in the area promoting feelings of hostility between the European inhabitants of the Union on the one hand and any other section of the inhabitants of the Union on the other hand”, was a powerful tool used by the authorities to restrict the political activities of those opposed to the policies of the government. In rejecting the challenge to the banning order, Stratford ACJ made the following statement about the nature of parliamentary sovereignty in South Africa:

[O]nce we are satisfied on a construction of the Act, that it gives to the Minister an unfettered discretion, it is no function of a Court of law to curtail its scope in the least degree, indeed it would be quite improper to do so. The above observation is, perhaps, so trite that it needs no statement, yet in cases before the Courts when the exercise of a statutory discretion is challenged, arguments are sometimes advanced which do seem to me to ignore the plain principle that Parliament may make any encroachment it chooses upon the life, liberty or property of any individual subject to its away, and that it is the function of courts of law to enforce its will.

Regardless of the spin later put on his words by presidential spin doctors, President Jacob Zuma’s latest comments about the judiciary reflect a yearning to return to this system of Parliamentary sovereignty. President Zuma said that there was a need to review the powers of the Constitutional Court because judges were not “special people”, but fallible human beings. As proof of this statement he pointed to the phenomenon of split judgments, saying:

How could you say that (the) judgment is absolutely correct when the judges themselves have different views about it? We don’t want to review the Constitutional Court, we want to review its powers. It is after experience that some of the decisions are not decisions that every other judge in the Constitutional Court agrees with… There are dissenting judgments. You will find that the dissenting one has more logic than the one that enjoyed the majority. What do you do in that case? That’s what has made the issue to become (one) of concern.

Judges were “influenced by what’s happening and who are influenced by you guys (the media)”, Zuma said. If the decisions of Parliament and the executive could be challenged, there was nothing wrong in questioning the decisions of the judiciary, he said.

Of course, President Zuma is correct that judges are fallible human beings and that different judges might view a legal question differently. (What he did not mention is that judges are usually slightly more intelligent than the average politician and usually far more honest. After all, as far as I know, no South African judge has ever faced bribery and corruption charges in court; no person has ever been convicted in South Africa for bribing a judge; and no judge has had to resign because he went to visit his drug dealing girlfriend in a Swiss jail on state expense.)

Reasonable lawyers often differ about what a legal provision or a judicial precedent might mean in a particular case. That is why lawyers take cases to court: most of them believe that they have some chance of winning their case or of getting a better deal for their client (even if they do lose the case). If they thought they had no chance of swaying the judge this way or that, they would not bother to submit papers and present oral arguments to court. They only believe that because reasonable people could differ on the correct interpretation and application of the facts or the law.

There is therefore nothing strange about different judges in the same court sometimes disagreeing with one another and writing a majority and minority opinion. Unlike some politicians, South African judges usually do not disagree with one another because they took bribes from different parties before the court or because they have another direct interest in the outcome of a matter. They do so because there is a genuine intellectual disagreement between the judges about the meaning of a legal rule or principle.

When this happens judges write different judgments in which they motivate why they took the view they took and these judgments can then be analysed and critiqued, thus keeping judges accountable for their decisions (unlike politicians, who are not held accountable for each decision they take, but are only held indirectly accountable by their party who might or might not gain more votes in the next election).

There is therefore also nothing wrong with criticising judicial decisions. Even sharp criticism of judicial decisions that engages with the legal arguments developed in a judgement must be welcomed, as such criticism and analysis ensure some form of accountability for the judiciary. (Of course, if a politician whose friend was convicted of bribing that politician argues that a specific majority decision handed down by the Constitutional Court is wrong, one might well take that opinion of the politician with more than a pinch of salt.)

But President Zuma’s claim that the powers of the Constitutional Court need to be reviewed because those judges sometimes hand down split decisions makes no sense whatsoever. Either the Constitutional Court has the power to interpret and enforce the provisions of the Constitution, or this power is taken away via a constitutional amendment. It is not possible to tinker with the powers of judicial review currently enjoyed by the Constitutional Court. Where a majority of judges, whose independence is guaranteed, are not allowed to review and set aside acts of Parliament or the executive, one does not have a constitutional democracy under the Rule of Law but a different system in which people enjoy rights by the grace of the majority party.

One can, of course, abolish the powers of the Constitutional Court to declare invalid legislation or acts of the executive, returning to a system of Parliamentary sovereignty which was in place during the apartheid years when the Sachs case was decided. This would mean that we would no longer live in a country in which the human rights of everyone is protected by the courts and President Zuma would then be free to act in accordance with even the most draconian legislation which would not be revieweable by the courts.

If one favoured a system, say, in which individuals could legally be arrested and detained without bringing them to trail, in which political opponents could be silenced with legally imposed “banning orders”, in which women or any unfavoured group (say, somebody who speaks Xhosa instead of Zulu or is disabled instead of able bodied) could legally be discriminated against by the government, then this system would obviously look particularly attractive.

But that is not the system on which the ANC had agreed years before the current Constitution was drafted. Recall that in 1989 in the Harare Declaration the ANC committed itself to the kind of system of judicial review that is currently in place in South Africa, affirming that in a democratic South Africa:

All shall enjoy universally recognised human rights, freedoms and civil liberties, protected under an entrenched Bill of Rights. South Africa shall have a new legal system which shall guarantee equality of all before the law. South Africa shall have an independent and non-racial judiciary.

There is no context which can explain away the words of the President about a need to review the powers of the Constitutional Court. Poor Mac Maharaj issued a statement in which he pretended that the President’s words could be interpreted to mean something completely different from what he actually said. But the statement about a need for a review of the Constitutional Court’s powers leaves no room for ambiguity or a different interpretation based on context. There is therefore no way to interpret President Zuma’s statement other than as an attack on the principles underlying a constitutional democracy.

In fact Maharaj’s statement added fuel to the fire by suggesting that the executive should be able to influence the judges. He stated that President Zuma’s statement that the powers of the Constitutional Court should be reviewed:

must therefore not be viewed as an attempt by government to undermine the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law which are entrenched in our Constitution. This is an exercise that falls within the mandate of the Executive of formulating and reviewing policies of government which seek to advance the transformative character of our Constitution. It is anticipated that the outcome of this exercise will not only assist in developing value-based solutions to address the legacy of the past but will contribute in shaping our evolving constitutional jurisprudence.

This statement does not only fail to explain away the shocking attack of the President on our constitutional democracy, but signals that the Presidency has a rather strange understanding of the principle of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. How the study by the executive of the judgments of the Constitutional Court could “contribute to the shaping of our evolving constitutional jurisprudence” without an attempt by the executive to intimidate the judges is unclear.

Judges have a constitutional duty to be impartial and independent. They cannot be swayed or influenced by the views of the executive who might wish to shape their jurisprudence. So if the executive aims to “shape” the decisions of the Constitutional Court, then it is aiming to interfere with the independence of the judiciary and hence to undermine one of the pillars of the constitutional democracy. This means that even the spin by the Presidency trying to excuse the inexcusable, displays a shocking lack of respect for our system of separation of powers and checks and balances.

One cannot interfere – legally, at least – with the supremacy of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary without changing various provisions of the Constitution, including the founding values in section 1 which states, inter alia, that the “Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the values of … supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.” Such an amendment would require a 75% majority in the National Assembly, something the ANC would not be able to muster – even if they managed to bribe a few small parties to support its anti-constitutional scheme.

This suggests that (in the absence of a coup d’état)  President Zuma’s wish that the powers of the Constitutional Court should be reviewed and amended is never going to fly. He will just have to take his chances in the courts (as he has done on many previous occasions, often with great success) when various cases that could affect his corruption and bribery prosecution comes before the judiciary. Meanwhile, he should really think before he talks.

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