Quote of the week

[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.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
2 March 2012

Another brilliant idea by our political youngsters

Criticism of members of the judiciary and the supposed “undemocratic” nature of our constitutional system with its supreme Constitution, enforced by an independent and impartial judiciary, is intensifying.

This is not surprising.

In a one-party dominant democracy in which access to state power also potentially provides undeserved access to immense financial wealth, acquired legally or illegally through the tender process or through high-end government jobs (with its accompanying perks), independent institutions (especially powerful independent institutions staffed by people of integrity) can easily be seen as a mortal threat to the acquisitive ambitions of the looting classes.

In order to maintain their political dominance and in order not to lose all legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary citizens, the looting classes need to draw a veil over their venal actions, by uttering platitudes about their abiding concern for the poor (on whose behalf they so enthusiastically sip champagne) and by expressing concerns about the slow pace of transformation and the “undemocratic” nature of those independent institutions that stand between them and the enjoyment of immense wealth and, perhaps as an afterthought, political power.

After all, no one wishes to spend 15 years in jail (or, in a best case scenario, a few years in a prison hospital), so it is imperative that the “right” person heads the National Prosecuting Authority and the “right” person heads the office of the Public Protector in order to immunise the looters from criminal prosecution for corruption. And of course, it can turn into a terrible bother when cheeky judges declare invalid an Act of Parliament or an appointment of the President, especially when these judgements threaten to destroy the carefully crafted legal mechanisms and structures put in place to protect the political leadership and those who are close enough to the leadership to benefit financially from an emerging kleptocratic state.

It is therefore tempting to dismiss all the talk of a review of the powers of the courts and the expressed yearning for a return to a system of parliamentary sovereignty in which Parliament would be able to make any law – no matter how drastic it infringes on the rights of ordinary voters and no matter how much unbridled power it grants to any of the politicians who “serve” in the Executive – as nothing more than the self-serving attempt at grabbing and consolidating unchecked power.

But this would be wrong. Given South Africa’s apartheid history in which the vast majority of citizens were disenfranchised and given the general distrust in legal processes and in members of the judiciary amongst many voters, arguments about the essential undemocratic nature of judicial review may well have some traction amongst ordinary voters who may not realise that the judiciary – for better or for worse – can (at the moment, at least) probably be trusted far more than can the politicians for whom we vote out of a sense of nostalgia for a better time (that might never have been) and out of a fear of a return to white domination and oppression.

So when the Young Communist League issues a statement demanding that judges become accountable to “the people”, one may take it slightly more seriously than one would normally have done.  The statement makes for fun reading, so I quote a sizable part of it here:

We have recently called for the transformation of the judiciary as part of our National Lekgotla resolutions and have stated strongly that our judges are not perfect and that since they are human; they are bound to err, to be biased and influenced by various social and political ambiances… [W]e have found it to be our revolutionary duty to highlight that the members of the judiciary must in exercising their duty understand and respect the political authority of the legislature and the executive; as the powers vested in them are mandated and legitimised by members of society through a democratic process enshrined in our constitution.

We have called for a judiciary system that is accountable to the people and that we will campaign for amendments in the Constitution for the judiciary to be subjected to popular and democratic elections. If the judiciary, like the other branches of government serves the public, then the public must determine who should serve in such offices at all levels of the judiciary.

There are judgements that necessitate that the judiciary be transformed as they leave much to taste relating to transformation of our state and society; it cannot be normal that the courts serve as stumbling blocks of transformation and hide under the protection of the media. The judiciary is not immune from public scrutiny and its independence should never be elevated above the other branches
of government which are democratically elected by the people and are accountable to the people.

Unfortunately the young comrades did not provide any examples of specific judgments of, say, the Constitutional Court, which might have left “much to taste” and which might have acted as a stumbling block to transformation (however defined). Perhaps it has in mind the Mazibuko judgment (which I had previously criticised) where the Constitutional Court endorsed the “pay-as-you-go” water policies of the City of Johannesburg – despite the fact that section 27(1)(b) of the Constitution guarantees for everyone the right of access to water.

But that policy was implemented, as I said, by the democratically elected City Council of Johannesburg (run by the ANC, who is in alliance with the Communist Party) in line with the water policies of the democratically elected national government (a government in which Communist Party serves and whose perks – including long stays in the Mount Nelson and revolutionary free travel to Cuba – its leader seems to enjoy rather a lot). It is therefore unclear how the election of judges would make such judgments more “transformed”. The case nicely illustrates that the problem is not the judges at all, but rather the neo-liberal policies of the very government in which the Communists continue to serve and continue to benefit from.

The problem is that the voters have actually elected this government who has implemented these anti-transformation policies. One can never trust the bloody voters to do the right thing, ne? What is needed, so it seems, is to take a leaf out of the book of Berthold Brecht, and demand that the electorate be replaced. In his poem, The Solution, Brecht mocked an unnamed Communist regime’s pretensions to being democratic in the following manner: “After the uprising of the 17th June/ The Secretary of the Writers Union/ Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee/ Stating that the people/ Had forfeited the confidence of the government/ And could win it back only/ By redoubled efforts./ Would it not be easier/ In that case for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?”

Perhaps the young comrades also did not realise that in a constitutional state (in which the judiciary is required to interpret and enforce the Constitution and thus to check the power of the other branches of government to ensure that those branches do not abuse their power or infringe on the rights of citizens), elected judges would be superfluous. Why have another elected branch of government if that branch is going to do no more than confirm the policies (like the neo-liberal policies around the pay-as-you-go supply of water) devised by the other elected branches of the state.

But, to be fair, at first glance I did not realise how brilliant this plan might turn out to be. As the young comrades pointed out, the problem with judges is that “they are bound to err, to be biased and influenced by various social and political ambiances”.

Goodness, I for one would not want to have any case about the constitutionality of an act by the President heard by judges influenced by various social and political “ambiances”. That is why the election of judges might turn out to be a brilliant idea. After all, at present the other branches of government are staffed by elected officials and we all know that they never err, that they are never biased and that they would never think of being influenced by social or political “ambiences”. No one who has ever attended a debate in the National Assembly would be able to deny that these elected representatives are always impeccable objective and diligent and that their decisions are always correct and never influenced by the wrong kind of “ambiences”.

Who would not want to take their chances in court with an elected judge – as long as that elected judge demonstrates the high degree of objectivity, and the unfailing ability always to make the correct decision, for which our members of Parliament are so well known (give or take a hundred or so Travelgate crooks).

I only have one question: how are we going to protect these elected judges from exposure to social and political “ambiances”? Oh, of course, we only need to lock them up where they can be kept safe from the corrupting influences of the Sowetan and the Mail & Guardian and ETV News to keep them safe from such dangerous influences. Then we can wheel them out whenever a show trial, I mean a constitutional decision, demands it. That will leave plenty of time for the well-connected to loot the state and to spend their money on worthwhile projects – like champagne drinking appreciation classes, visits to drug mule girlfriends in foreign prisons and attending revolutionary parties organised by Kenny Kunene or the intellectual heirs of Brett Kebble.

PS: Apologies for the frivolous nature of this post. I just could not resist it.

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