An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.
“Americans,” said Winston Churchill, many years ago “can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” News that President Jacob Zuma seemed to have made another u-turn by accepting the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) which declared the appointment of the National Director for Public Prosecutions, Menzi Simelane, invalid, one day after lodging papers with the Constitutional Court opposing the decision, might well tempt one to apply this maxim to his Presidency.
After all, this year President Zuma first appointed and then fired Willem Heath as the head of the Special Investigative Union; first opposed the establishment of an arms deal inquiry before instituting one and eventually fired two cabinet Ministers and suspended the Police Commissioner – but only months after the Public Protector had found them guilty of maladministration.
Yet, it is not clear that the recent decision of President Zuma on Adv. Menzi Simelane complies with the provisions of the Constitution and the NPA Act. It is therefore far from clear whether President Zuma has done the right thing in this case. (Or put differently, he might have done the right thing but in an unlawful or unconstitutional manner.)
In a statement issued yesterday, the Presidency (somewhat confusingly) said that it had decided not to appeal the decision of the SCA.
However, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr Jeff Radebe will pursue the matter, seeking clarity on various issues in the course of the mandatory Constitutional Court certification process, with the full support of the President. In the meantime, the President has decided to place Advocate Simelane on special leave. Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba, Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, will act as the National Director of Public Prosecutions until further notice.
It is not clear on what issues clarity is being sought from the Constitutional Court. One would assume, these would include clarity on what the President is required to do to comply with the provisions of the National Prosecuting Authority Act when he appoints a “fit and proper” person as head of the NPA.
Section 167(5) of the Constitution states that the Constitutional Court makes the final decision whether conduct of the President is constitutional, and must confirm any order of invalidity made by the Supreme Court of Appeal before that order has any force. This means whether the President opposes the decision of the SCA or not, it will have no force and effect unless the Constitutional Court confirms it. Even if the Presidency does not “appeal” the decision of the SCA, it might therefore still be overturned by the Constitutional Court during the confirmation process and until that court decides on the issue, legally the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) remains in his post.
After the SCA handed down its decision, I contended that it would be in the best interest of the administration of justice for Adv. Menzi Simelane to step aside voluntary until such time as the Constitutional Court has dealt with this matter. Readers might therefore be forgiven for thinking that I would applaud the announcement that Adv. Simelane had been placed on special leave. And, of course, I cannot fault the Presidency for believing that it would be better for Adv. Simelane to go on leave until the SCA judgment had been dealt with by the Constitutional Court.
However, I am not sure that it is legally and constitutionally tenable for the NDPP to be placed on special leave by the President. In the absence of an announcement about an inquiry into Adv. Simelane’s fitness to hold office, the NPA Act makes no provision for the NDPP to be placed on special leave by the President – unless the NDPP himself requests this. There is a good reason for this: if the President could place a NDPP on special leave this would potentially fundamentally interfere with the independence of the NPA and would be illegal and unconstitutional.
The Constitutional Court confirmed in the First Certification judgment that the NDPP is independent. He or she can only be placed ons special leave, suspended or removed from office in terms of the NPA Act after following the correct procedures. The statement by the Presidency makes no mention of these procedures. I was critical of then President Thabo Mbeki when he first suspended Vusi Pikoli as NDPP after Pikoli had issued a warrant of arrest for Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, arguing that the move reeked of interference with the independence of the NDPP.
The same principle applies here, despite the fact that the incumbent NDPP appears to be less enthusiastic about his independence. One must apply principles regardless of the personalities involved.
Section 12(5) of the NPA Act clearly states that the NDPP “shall not be suspended or removed from office except in accordance with the provisions of subsections (6), (7) and (8)”. Section 6 of that Act states that:
The President may provisionally suspend the National Director … from his or her office, pending such enquiry into his or her fitness to hold such office as the President deems fit and, subject to the provisions of this subsection, may thereupon remove him or her from office (i) for misconduct; (ii) on account of continued ill-health; (iii) on account of incapacity to carry out his or her duties of office efficiently; or (iv) on account thereof that he or she is no longer a fit and proper person to hold the office concerned.
This clearly has not happened as Adv. Simelane has not been suspended and neither has an inquiry been launched about his fitness to hold office. The only way in which the NDPP can go on special leave is if he himself requests to do so. (That is why I suggested that it would be best for Adv. Simelane voluntarily stepped aside.) Section 8 of the NPA Act provides for this, stating that:
(8(a) The President may allow the National Director or a Deputy National Director at his or her request, to vacate his or her office (i) on account of continued ill-health; or (ii) for any other reason which the President deems sufficient.
(b) The request in terms of paragraph (a)(ii) shall be addressed to the President at least six calendar months prior to the date on which he or she wishes to vacate his or her office, unless the President grants a shorter period in a specific case.
The statement that the President has decided to place Adv. Simelane on special leave is therefore perplexing and pose serious questions about the legality of this move. No mention is made of a request received from Adv. Simelane to be vacate his office (or, for that matter, to be placed on special leave), neither is mention made of the reasons given by Adv. Simelane for this or the reasons why the President had decided to waive the requirement that such a request must be received six month before the leave takes hold. In the absence of such a request, a decision of President Zuma to place Simelane on special leave would therefore be unlawful as it would interfere with the independence of the NPA and would not comply with the NPA Act.
In any case, section 8 deals with the termination of the services of the NDPP and not with being placed on special leave.
After I had suggested that it would be better for Adv. Simelane to go on leave voluntarily, he responded to questions of Adriaan Basson, a journalist from City Press, by stating that he had no intention to step aside. The statement by the Presidency does not clarify this issue and is phrased in such a manner as suggesting that the decision was taken by President Zuma without receiving the requisite request from Simelane. In the absence of a clear statement that a request was received from Adv. Simelane to vacate his position (or, perhaps, but far more arguably) go on special leave, one must assume that the President has therefore again acted unlawfully.
What is required, at the very least, is for Adv. Simelane to clarify the situation. In the absence of a specific indication by him that he requested to vacate his office (or, at a stretch, to go on special leave), the decision by the President to place him on special leave must surely be null and void. This interpretation may seem overly legalistic, but there is a very good reason for interpreting the NPA Act in this way. One should not set a precedent in which the President of the country places the head of the NPA on special leave without receiving such a request from the NDPP. This is so because the precedent set would not only be unlawful but would also potentially interfere with the independence of the NPA.
Clarity from Adv. Simelane and/or the Presidency is therefore needed urgently to remove any uncertainty about the position of the NDPP.