Constitutional Hill

On self-serving and untrue criticisms of the judiciary

When US President Barack Obama on Tuesday said that he was confident that the US Supreme Court would not overturn parts or all of his signature health care legislation, some South Africans who blindly repeat the self-serving but blatantly untrue claims of their preferred leaders, might have been tempted to shout: “We told you so.”

If Obama can implicitly criticise the judges of the US Supreme Court, why can’t President Zuma say that he wants to review the powers of the Constitutional Court? Why can’t Gwede Mantashe say that our judges threaten the stability of the country and act in their own self-interest because they are hostile to the ANC-led executive? Why can’t Ngoako Ramathlodi say that because of the Constitution “the black majority enjoys empty political power while forces against change reign supreme in the economy, judiciary, public opinion and civil society”? Why can’t he say that the courts in our judiciary “the forces against change still hold relative hegemony”?

They may be emboldened by this line of reasoning if they read the column by liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who lashed out at the five right wing judges who form a majority on the nine-member US Supreme Court in the following manner:

This court, cosseted behind white marble pillars, out of reach of TV, accountable to no one once they give the last word, is well on its way to becoming one of the most divisive in modern American history. It has squandered even the semi-illusion that it is the unbiased, honest guardian of the Constitution. It is run by hacks dressed up in black robes. All the fancy diplomas of the conservative majority cannot disguise the fact that its reasoning on the most important decisions affecting Americans seems shaped more by a political handbook than a legal brief.

But this possible shadenfreude by South African critics of the Constitutional Court would be unjustified and more than a tinge dishonest. Very few people argue that judges and the decisions they make should never be criticised – even in harsh terms. I myself have often criticised various judgments of the Constitutional Court as well as many judgments delivered by judges in other courts in South Africa. Criticism of judgments of the judiciary is not the issue. For example, a critical analysis of the Constitutional Court judgment which refused to hear the Hlophe appeal would be potentially valuable. I for one would engage vigorously with such a critical analysis and will try to demolish any kind of argument put up (which, I believe, would not be too difficult to do).

This kind of criticism of judicial decisions is par for the course for any academic.

What we object to is the conservative  attacks on the judiciary masquerading as radical concern for transformation. Some of us take issue with Jacob Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, Ngoako Ramathlodi and others, not because they criticise court judgments or because they attack specific judges (based on the conservative or even reactionary judgments handed down by those judges). We take issue with these self-serving and undemocratic attacks, first, because the attacks on the judiciary (the Constitutional Court, in particular) and on specific judges are not based on fact at all and are mostly based on, (how shall I put this nicely), an adventurous and creative engagement with the truth.

It is not as if the Constitutional Court cannot and should not be criticised. But then it should be based on the judgments of that court and the reasoning employed in the specific judgements of that court by an individual judge.

I have yet to see any critic of that court explaining which judgments exactly demonstrate that the Constitutional Court is hostile to the ANC or that it opposes transformation.

Can it be the judgment in which the court found that search warrants in the Zuma case were valid? No, that case dealt a blow to Jacob Zuma’s attempts to stay out of jail, but obviously had nothing to do with transformation.

Can it be the judgment that declared invalid the law on which President Zuma relied when he extended the term of office of the former Chief Justice? No luck there either, as that judgment was based on a protection of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary (which the ANC says it will defend to the bitter end), so that judgment was actually pro-ANC.

Was it the judgment which invalidated the government’s HIV mother to child transmission policy? No, that judgment promoted the well-being of poor and vulnerable women and their children.

And what judgment exactly threatened the stability of the country? Not one judgment comes to mind or has ever been mentioned by the critics of the Constitutional Court.

But there is a second reason why most of these attacks on the judiciary and the Constitutional Court are not just wrong, but also dangerous. They often seem to come from a deeply reactionary and undemocratic place. What is being objected to is not the politics or ideology of a specific Constitutional Court judgment or whether the judgment is pro-transformation or anti-transformation (after all, if that was the issue, the current Chief Justice – the most conservative member on that court – would never have been appointed by President Zuma).

Instead, the aim of those who attack the Constitutional Court often seems to be to create a scapegoat for the governance failures of the government. Without ever being able to name one Constitutional Court judgment which has stopped textbooks from being delivered to a school, which has stopped the government from replacing mud schools with brick and mortar schools, which has stopped the government from taking back control of schools from the out of control labour unions, attackers claim that it is the fault of the Constitutional Court that for some people little has changed in South Africa since 1994.

But it was not the Constitutional Court that imposed the GEAR policy on the government; that imposed a willing-buyer willing-seller land reform policy on the government; that forced the government to buy R40 billion worth of arms; that forced the government Ministers to stay at the Mount Nelson and buy million Rand cars. No, that was our government who did this all by itself.

So, by all means, criticise the judgments of the Constitutional Court, but be honest when you do so. Do not hide behind vague and untrue claims about the evil courts to try and justify the failures of the government. Do not attack the supremacy of the Constitution – as if this supremacy is to blame for the many “challenges” of government. Be honest about your motives for criticising a judgment. For example, why not come right out and say that the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) nullifying the appointment of Menzi Simelane, has nothing to do with fears of stifling transformation and everything to do with fears that an independent person will be appointed as National Director of Public Prosecutions who will not block the prosecution of well-connected politicians.

  • George Gildenhuys

    Well said…

    Ironically I was just reading a very interesting article in The Economist about how the courts in emerging markets are helping the poor.

    well worth a read: http://www.economist.com/node/21551459

  • Gwebecimele
  • Pierre De Vos
  • ozoneblue – Obama must go!

    “If Obama can implicitly criticise the judges of the US Supreme Court, why can’t President Zuma say that he wants to review the powers of the Constitutional Court?”

    Indeed why not?

    Let me take a guess. Because prez Obama is “educated” and not a real African or a sexist Zulu polygamist.

  • Brett Nortje

    The real scandal here is that 3 Court Orders to re-employ instant teachers have been ignored by the Eastern Cape govt. Laughed off. The doctrine of effectiveness given the finger. ANd the NPA does nothing about it.

    OK, Obama also stiffed a Georgia Court which was hearing argument on his elegibility to be elected as President of the United States as he is no ‘natural-born citizen’….

    Er, Shannon?

  • Chris (Not the right wing guy)

    Good post Prof de Vos, one of your best ever.

  • Snowman

    Obama and Zuma are of African origin. What we are seeing is the Africanisation of the South African and United States justice systems. Both secretly prefer a unitary socialist state and hopefully neither will be reelected.

    John Roberts will no doubt agree with me.

  • Mikhail Dworkin Fassbinder

    @ Brett

    “Obama also stiffed a Georgia Court which was hearing argument on his elegibility to be elected as President of the United States as he is no ‘natural-born citizen’….”

    Brett, I have a dossier full of compelling evidence that Obama was born on a small chicken farm near Umtata. His actual birth certificate shows that, in 2009, he was only 33 – two years too young to be President. Do you have well-connected “Tea Party” contacts who can ensure this secret dossier gets into the “right” hands?

    Thanks.

  • Brett Nortje

    Thank you kindly Dworky, but I think there is quite enough authority that Barry Soetoro is no ‘Natural Born Citizen’… As the US Courts have interpreted it for centuries, the offspring of 2 US citizens…

    There is also the President’s photoshopped ‘birth certificate’ with no Hawaiian original…

    All the same, keep at it!