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
22 August 2011

What happened to reasoned debate?

The debate about the wisdom of appointing Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng as Chief Justice, given the fact that he has had some ethical lapses in the past, that he appears to have a “gender problem”, and that he belongs to a church that holds extreme views – even by the standards of a modern evangelical church – has revealed much about South Africa’s racial fault-lines and about the very different conceptions about democracy of various groups in South Africa.

This Sunday, City Press uncovered an unreported judgment (now online in the Seminar Room) of the nominee in which Mogoeng, reviewing the case of a woman brutally assaulted by her boyfriend, reduced the man’s sentence from 2 years in jail to a fine of R2000. The woman was tied to a vehicle with wire and dragged at a “fairly high speed” behind the car for some 50 metres on a gravel road. The paper says that after hearing the matter on review in 2001, Mogoeng held that the two years sentence of Eric Mathibe was “too harsh by any standards”, noting, among other things, that he had been “provoked” by the complainant.

Mogoeng noted the complainant did not sustain “serious injuries”. She had several abrasions on her stomach, right leg and both knees. The victim was in pain, but Mathibe refused to let her have medical treatment on the day of the incident. He took her to consult a doctor the following day. The trial magistrate defended the sentence by saying assault on women was a problem in the district and that the crime was “barbaric and ancient”. Mogoeng seemingly did not agree, handing down a judgment that would surely upset any self-respecting gender activist. It would be akin to a judge setting aside a jail sentence of a farmer who had seriously assaulted a farm worker and had dragged the farm worker behind his bakkie on the basis that the sentence was too harsh (something, alas, that is not unknown to our judicial system).

City Press and its sister paper Rapport also reported that Mogoeng belongs to Winners Chapel International church, an institution that believes homosexuality is a perversion and members can buy the Bishop’s book on how to get divine deliverance from it. The church was founded and is guided by Nigerian Bishop David Oyedepo, says the report. It believes in faith-healing for various diseases and has published the testimony of a man whose prayers it claims brought a baby into the world after the mother had been pregnant for five years and seven months, but was unable to deliver the child. Mogoeng is said to deliver “pastoral services” for the church, but does not preach.

Of course, one would not have to look very far to find South Africans who share these views. Many men believe that women “provoke” men into raping them by wearing short skirts or high heels. Other men believe women “provoke” men to assault them by not obeying the orders of their husbands or boyfriends or by flirting with other men. And many South Africans have quite strange and even downright weird religious beliefs while others are athiests or are agnostic.

However, the question is not whether these beliefs are widespread, but whether it is appropriate that the Chief Justice of South Africa should hold such beliefs – given the commitments contained in our Constitution. The beliefs of a nominee for Chief Justice should not be problematic merely because they differ from one’s own. The beliefs should be problematic – as they might very well be in this case – because they cannot be squared with the values enshrined in the Constitution, which values the Chief Justice would symbolically be embodying and would be required to uphold – regardless of his personal beliefs.

If one happens to be a right-wing traditionalist or a patriarch one would be hard pressed not to cheer on this possible appointment of Justice Mogoeng as Chief Justice. (That is why the Freedom Front Plus and Inkatha Freedom Party should find it easy to support this nomination.) If one happens to embrace the progressive values enshrined in the Constitution and if one is honest with oneself and not overtly defensive, one would have to admit that one could not – with a clear conscience – support such an appointment.  (Cosatu and the SACP should therefore really be deeply worried about the nomination of Mogoeng as Chief Justice.)

Or so it seems.

But this is not how the debate has unfolded. Many seemingly progressive and respected individuals, people whose views one would otherwise take seriously and respect, have sprung to the defense of the nominee on the basis that he was black and hence could not be criticised because it was not allowed to criticise a black nominee  as this would “undermine” him or on the basis that he was nominated by the President and hence that it would be insulting to the President to criticise the nomination. Other conservative voices have criticised the appointment – perhaps because they would criticise any decision that our President makes – no matter how wise that decision might be.

Personally I find the reasons for defending the nominee startling, to say the least. Perhaps it says much about the manner in which we have all been infected and tainted by our apartheid past, that so many South Africans are incapable of making a reasoned assessment about the wisdom of the nomination, based on their values and principles and not based on some other kind of misplaced solidarity, prejudice, hatred or defensiveness.

Not all South Africans seem to have been able to escape the effects of the ideology of apartheid, which was based on the absurd and deeply offensive assumption that white South Africans were morally and intellectually superior to black South Africans and therefore deserved to be treated with more respect and concern than blacks. For such individuals – black and white – there is nothing wrong with believing that black South Africans do not deserve the best and that they should be happy to settle for second or third best.

Why else would so many people support the appointment of Mogoeng Mogoeng, whom no person – as far as I am aware – has stated is the best person for the job of Chief Justice? Have they not read the work of Steve Biko? Have they been so deeply traumatised by apartheid ideology and so bewitched by the on-going propagation of white superiority by white racists, that they do not believe that, as fellow South Africans, they deserve the very best Chief Justice – who just happens to be Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke?

By saying this I am in no way trying to minimise the harsh and cruel effects of apartheid. On the contrary, I am taking these effects seriously but asking what can be done to free us all of a deeply ingrained but horribly offensive and corrosive apartheid mind-set that bedevils so much of our private actions and what passes as our public discourse. While many (but by no means all) white people who take part in public debates exude a kind of moral arrogance and superiority that is deeply offensive and hurtful to those who are patronised, subjected to discrimination or ignored, many black South Africans (but by no means all) seem to embrace the mediocrity ascribed to them by those very racists whom we should all surely despise and whose beliefs we should work very hard to undermine.

Secondly, I am really perplexed by the argument that we should not be allowed to comment on the quality of the candidate nominated by the President because that would show disrespect to the President. This view seems, to me at least, deeply undemocratic. Section 174(3) of the Constitution states that the President as head of the national executive appoints the Chief Justice, “after consulting the Judicial Service Commission and the leader of parties represented in the National Assembly”

The President must consult and then – after consulting – must appoint the candidate of his choice after having taken into account the views of the JSC and the leaders of opposition parties. In 1999, in President of the Republic of South Africa and Others v SARFU and Others the Constitutional Court considered the appointment of Constitutional Court judges under the Interim Constitution, which required, inter alia, that the President had to appoint such judges “after consultation with the Chief Justice.  The court held that :

It follows …  that this appointment could only take place in good faith after consulting the Chief Justice and giving serious consideration to his views.”

The heart of the matter – as also confirmed by many other judicial authorities – is that the President must consider other views meaningfully, and give them serious consideration, although it is clear the final decision rests with him. In doing so, the views of the public must necessarily play a role. If, say, the JSC informs the President that his nominee for Chief Justice lacks the gravitas, judicial stature, belief in the values enshrined in the Constitution and/or support of the judiciary as a whole and that such an appointment would be unwise – something the JSC clearly is entitled to do – the President may nevertheless proceed with the appointment.

In the absence of political consequences the President will never take the views of the JSC seriously and in the absence of a democratic debate there can therefore not be meaningful consultation between the JSC and the President. What would force the President to reconsider the appointment he wishes to make is the court of public opinion. But that court – which is conducted in the democratic space itself by all citizens – would only be able to make an informed decision on whether it supports the decision of the President if there is widespread discussion and debate about the merits and the demerits of the President’s preferred candidate.

To suggest, as some have done, that we should not be allowed to discuss – in a considered and responsible manner – whether the nominee is suitable for appointment merely because our “great leader”, our “wise father”, our “benevolent patriarch” has decided that he should be appointed, is profoundly anti-democratic and deeply insulting to the South African voters.

This does not mean that we should gratuitously insult the nominee in the process. I therefore agree with Paul Berkowitz that Zapiro’s cartoon about this matter was a deeply problematic one. As Berkowitz wrote in the Daily Maverick:

This cartoon falls far short of that standard – it may in fact be my least-favourite cartoon of his to date. In contrast to his normal scalpel-sharp analysis, this was a hatchet job. Mogoeng is painted as a sycophant, an obedient servant of the president who is being rewarded for his pliancy.

But surely it is possible to find the middle ground in between the “hatchet job” done by Zapiro on the nominee, and the sycophantic and often completely mindless and anti-democratic arguments put up in defence of Justice Mogoeng’s nomination as Chief Justice? Surely we can talk in a relatively civil and reasoned manner about what characteristics a good judge and a good Chief Justice should possess and then proceed to analyse Judge Mogoeng’s record to determine whether he indeed possesses these characteristics. Surely, in a democracy we all have both a right and a duty to apply our minds to the matter and not to jump to conclusions based on our racial insecurities, our apartheid-imposed sense of shame and self-hatred or our knee-jerk hatred of the President and the ANC?

When we engage in this discussion we are not undermining the nominee. On the contrary, we are treating the nominee with the requisite respect by taking his or her views seriously and by not treating the nominee as a disembodied symbol respresenting a specific race or gender, but as an individual human being with strenghts and weaknesses, with his own ideas and values, with an agency which the apartheid system wanted to deny all black South Africans.

Personally – for reasons provided in this and previous post – I am deeply concerned about the possible nomination of Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng as Chief Justice. In my view there is ample evidence that he is not the best person for the job and that his value system is not in line with that embodied by our Constitution. Unlike the appointment of Chaskalson, Langa and Ngcobo – which I all supported enthusiastically – I cannot support this appointment. Saying so is difficult because it exposes one to attack and accusations of racism, treachery and worse. It also possibly bedevils future interactions with the new Chief Justice and other members of that court. I would have preferred not to have to make this argument, but I would surely have been a coward if I had kept silent. Keeping silent would also have been deeply patronising to the nominee.

But in engaging in this debate it would have been nice to hear reasoned arguments that support the opposite view, arguments which analyse the nominees strengths and attempts to demonstrate why the values displayed by the nominee in his interviews and judgments are admirable and more or less in line with the values embodied in our Constitution.

So far we have been ill-served by those who defend the nomination. Their failure to make reasoned arguments in favour of his nomination impoverishes the debate and disrespects the democratic space which our Constitution envisaged would be used wisely by all citizens with the power to speak so that we can debate the issues and so that those who are required to make these difficult decisions can hopefully make the wisest possible choice.

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