Given recent statements by Gwede Mantashe, Secretary General of the ANC, and President Jacob Zuma complaining about alleged “interference” by the judiciary in the work of the elected branches of government (the legislature and the executive), it is perhaps understandable that an announcement by cabinet about a new “assessment on the transformation of the judicial system and the role of the judiciary in a developmental state” will be carried out by a “reputable research institution” created an outcry. As I wrote earlier this week, trust in the ANC government amongst the chattering classes is at an all time low, given daily reports of corruption in our media and given the passing of the Secrecy Bill by the National Assembly.
Only a few minutes after the statement was released my phone started ringing as journalists anxiously sought confirmation that this statement must be read as a full-frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary. Journalists focused especially on the announcement that cabinet agreed to an approach to the transformation of the judicial system that would include an ”assessment of the decisions of the Constitutional Court”, to be “undertaken by a research institution to establish how the decisions of the court have impacted on the lives of ordinary citizens and how these decisions have influenced socio-economic transformation and the reform of the law”.
However, on its face, this statement could be viewed as a positive development. If a truly independent and reputable research institution conducts such an assessment, it will inevitably find that the decisions of the Constitutional Court – perhaps more than the actions of the legislature and the executive — have by and large impacted positively on the lives of ordinary citizens and have facilitated socio-economic transformation. Where the Constitutional Court has handed down judgments that could be viewed as anti-poor, the decisions have almost always endorsed the policies of the government.
I am thinking, for example, of the Mazibuko judgement in which the installation of pre-paid water meters in Phiri, Soweto were unsuccessfully challenged by the residents of that area. The policy was devised and implemented by the ANC-led Metro government of Johannesburg and in my view discriminated against poor black residence of parts of Soweto. The Constitutional Court declined to intervene because the Metro’s policy was adapted over time.
However, in many other cases, the Constitutional Court has either endorsed transformative policies of the government or declared invalid anti-poor policies and laws passed by the ANC national or provincial governments. In the Grootboom case, the Treatment Action Campaign case, the Khosa case, the Jaftha case, and the Glennister case the Constitutional Court handed down judgments that had the effect of extending social and economic rights benefits to the poor, protected them from discrimination and unfair treatment or placed duties on the government to fight corruption, the very corruption that disproportionately affect the lives of the poor and the marginalised who depend on the honest and efficient state to provide it with the minimum basic goods and services required for them to survive and live a meaningful life.
The most telling case in this regard is the judgment of the Constitutional Court in the case of Abahlali Basemjondolo Movement SA and Another v Premier of the Province of Kwazulu-Natal and Others in which the Constitutional Court struck down sections of the KwaZulu-Natal Elimination and Prevention of Re-emergence of Slums Act. This Act, passed by the ANC-led legislature in KwaZulu-Natal, represented a full frontal attack on the poor, the homeless and those living in informal settlements. It might well have been passed in an attempt to undermine Abahlali Basemjondolo and to provide the government with legal tools to harass its members. The Act would have required landlords to evict all “slum dwellers” (a term last used by the apartheid government in the 1960ties) and was thus found to breach the right of access to housing guaranteed in the Constitution.
A credible report assessing the work of the Constitutional Court will have to come to the conclusion reached above, answering the very criticism of Mantashe, Zuma and others in the ANC who have convinced themselves that the courts interfere with the abilities of the other branches of government to effect socio-economic transformation. Any other conclusion will not be credible and no academic worth his or her salt would put their name to a report that concludes differently. If the assessment is done properly, it may therefore help to silence critics of the Constitutional Court.
This does not mean that other aspects of the cabinet statement are not worrying as they suggest a complete lack of respect for the separation of powers doctrine, which is inherent in a system of checks and balances in a constitutional democracy with a supreme Constitution. Two statements in particular can be interpreted to mean that the executive wishes to meet privately (read, in secret) with members of the judiciary to “engage” judges and to try and convince them that they should stop finding that the government is in breach of the Constitution. Notably the statement says:
Thirdly, to affirm the independence of the judiciary as well as that of the executive and parliament with a view to promoting interdependence and interface that is necessary to realize transformation goals envisaged by the Constitution. ….. Appropriate mechanisms be developed to facilitate for regular interface between the three spheres of the State to enhance synergy and constructive engagement among them in pursuit of common transformative goals that are geared to benefit the society at large.
There is nothing wrong with the leadership of the judiciary engaging the executive on issues dealing with access to justice and the better running of the judicial system. The government is elected to provide better access to justice and has to ensure that the system works well. In as much as formal discussions between the branches of government can facilitate the better functioning of our court system and easier access to courts, the move should be welcomed.
However, it is absolutely inappropriate for the executive to engage judges in a way that would even give the appearance that the members of the executive are trying to persuade judges to make decisions in individual cases that are more in line with the policy choices of the government. This would represent a full frontal attack on the independence of the judiciary and the system of checks and balances put in place by our Constitution.
Judges usually do not engage anyone about their past or future judgments (no matter what Judge President John Hlophe might think). They speak through their judgements and engage in this formal sense in a dialogue with the other two branches of government who can then respond appropriately to the judgments of the courts to ensure that they comply with the Constitution. Judges do not and cannot be seen to engage with members of the executive with a view of achieving “synergy” between the views of the executive and the judiciary.
In a constitutional democracy any synergy that exists between the executive and the judiciary is imposed by the various provisions of the Constitution as interpreted by the Constitutional Court. The judiciary is in dialogue with the executive in a formal way through their judgments but they are not “interdependent” with the other branches of government in the way hinted at by the statement (in the sense that they have to meet with the executive and agree on a plan of action on how best to effect transformation without embarrassing the bumbling lawyers appointed by the President and Parliament). If this is what the statement implied, it is wrong and dangerous and the intentions expressed in it would then be proposing an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers doctrine, which is a doctrine that is deeply entrenched in our constitutional law.
What is needed is for this statement to be clarified. As it stands it can easily lead to the conclusion that the cabinet has a particularly dangerous and unconstitutional view of the relationship between the executive and the members of the judiciary. The judiciary — unlike the legislature and the executive — is completely independent and is required to be seen to be independent from the other branches of government. Secret talks about the transformative goals of the government with a view to “pull together” (which could easily mean, pull in the same direction as the executive – even when it acts in breach of the Constitution) would therefore not be acceptable. Indeed, it would represent a shocking attack against the Constitution itself.
As I suggested, the statement could, at a stretch, be interpreted differently to mean only that the executive would like to engage the leadership of the judiciary to improve access to justice and the efficiency of the courts. If that is the case, this should be made clear. If, however, the cabinet believes that it is appropriate for them to have secret chats with members of the judiciary to ensure policy synergies between them and the judiciary so that judges would not declare invalid the bumbling actions of the legislature and the executive, then the cabinet is shockingly ignorant and is embarking on a road to destroy our constitutional democracy. No judge who respects the Constitution would be party to such talks.