Over the last 150 days we have learned much about the power of the habitual in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa. We have heard it in the grumbling, cavilling, quarrelling and grousing about the logic (or lack of) of government decrees. We have also seen it in the defiance of logic among the many bourgeois folks who mistook their entitlement for rights, whether to go running, do yoga on the beach, surf, get takeaway coffees, or to purchase items subjected to restricted trade… We saw it in the contradictory messages relayed by official government channels, in the conflict between some experts advising government, between government officials and such experts, and in the ways in which opposition parties contradicted themselves as they opposed government proclamations.
The Cape Times report today (subscription required):
The Judicial Services Commission (JSC) convenes today to deal with the thorny matter of impeachment proceedings brought against Cape Judge President John Hlophe, who is accused of “gross incompetence” by a top city advocate.
Peter Hazell, SC, asked the JSC to investigate a string of accusations against Judge Hlophe last August. At its last meeting, the commission decided to give Judge Hlophe the right to reply before the matter could be finalised.
One of the complaints levelled against Judge Hlophe is that he was in contempt of court because of his public statements that he “couldn’t care less” about the findings of the Supreme Court of Appeal in the case between the health minister and the pharmaceutical companies.
Judge Hlope’s response, unfortunately, is not very encouraging. “With respect,” he said” “I do not think the JSC has criminal jurisdiction over judges.” Which rather misses the point, which is that judges are constitutionally bound not to act in a manner that could be construed as grossly incompetent or as constituting gross misconduct.
I am glad I am not on the JSC and I am sure glad I am not the Chief Justice who will have to try and sort out this mess. It seems like a no-win situation. Judge Hlophe will not be impeached by the JSC because his missteps “only” show stupidity and arrogance on his side. If these were impeachable offences many a judge would have been out of a job. Unfortunately Judge Hlophe’s reputation will be further tarnished by the process and respect for the judiciary will be further compromised.
At the same time, the reactionary lawyers and judges who predicted (and was hoping for) his downfall from the start of his tenure, will be able to point to Judge Hlophe when they moan about the perils of transformation. He has become the worst kind of poster child for transformation because he has misused arguments about racism to help excuse his unwise behaviour.
The best possible outcome would be if Judge Hlophe could be persuaded to step down. Don’t we need a new ambassador in Zimbabwe or Iraq?