Quote of the week

Mr Zuma is no ordinary litigant. He is the former President of the Republic, who remains a public figure and continues to wield significant political influence, while acting as an example to his supporters… He has a great deal of power to incite others to similarly defy court orders because his actions and any consequences, or lack thereof, are being closely observed by the public. If his conduct is met with impunity, he will do significant damage to the rule of law. As this Court noted in Mamabolo, “[n]o one familiar with our history can be unaware of the very special need to preserve the integrity of the rule of law”. Mr Zuma is subject to the laws of the Republic. No person enjoys exclusion or exemption from the sovereignty of our laws… It would be antithetical to the value of accountability if those who once held high office are not bound by the law.

Khampepe j
Secretary of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State v Zuma and Others (CCT 52/21) [2021] ZACC 18
24 October 2011

On “Indians”, “Africans” and a lack of emotional intelligence

Almost all of us have had a moment (well, probably far more than one moment) when we were asked an impossibly difficult question or were subjected to an arrogant put-down or cutting remark, but we could not think of the witty, incisive or clever retort that would have saved the day for us. Only much later — after feeling the sting of humiliation for a few minutes or hours — would we think of the clever or witty thing we could have said in response to the question or attack.

I would guess that many candidates interviewed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) for judicial posts must have kicked themselves after an interview for not being able to provide the killer answer to members of the JSC to deal with the often hostile questions put to him or her.

One would have thought that Judge Isaac Madondo might have had such a moment during his interview before the JSC for the position of KwaZulu-Natal Judge President and that he would subsequently have thought what he could have said to answer the particularly tricky question in a more astute manner. Sadly, he had either not reflected on the matter; or he had, but had not been able to conjure up a more palatable answer.

Judge Madondo was vying for the post along with acting Judge President of KwaZulu-Natal, Chiman Patel. During his interview Judge Madondo told the commissioners that he did not think an Indian candidate would be suitable to fill the position of Judge President. When IFP MP Koos van der Merwe asked him if it was time to appoint an Indian judge president, Madondo replied, without hesitation: “I don’t think so. We still have things to address, imbalances, all kinds of things which need more insight, which a person who is not [a black] African cannot be privy to…. We were oppressed, but not in the same way.”

Now, this was by no means a subtle, carefully thought through or endearing answer. It could easily be read as the cynical deployment of apartheid race categories in a shameless attempt to realise one’s very personal ambitions: playing the race card to get a job one would not have gotten but for the fact that one happened to be African. On its face, the statement suggests that Judge Madondo believes that Indians have not suffered as much as Zulus during the apartheid era and that this meant that a person who used to be classified as Indian during apartheid cannot become Judge President in KwaZulu-Natal today. The impression created is that the judge is a bit of a racial bigot.

Yet, his answer contains a kernel of truth which an agile mind would easily have been able to mould into a more palatable answer without shying away from the fact that our Constitution allows race to be taken into account by those who must decide on the appointment of judges.

A better answer would clearly have been that any person — no matter what his or her race — who is committed to the values enshrined in the Constitution and has the necessary legal skills and leadership abilities and enjoys the support of his or her colleagues would be suitable for appointment as Judge President. One could then have added (pretending to be humble and unambitious) that one believed that as an African with considerable legal experience and a strong commitment to access to justice, one would bring special insights and skills to the job if one were to be appointed by the JSC.

One could have continued to quote section 174(2) of the Constitution, which states that the need for the judiciary to reflect broadly the racial and gender composition of South Africa must be considered when judicial officers are appointed. Noting that race can never be the only criteria taken into account when appointments are considered and rejecting the idea that a person could be disqualified from appointment merely for being an Indian or any other race, one could nevertheless have emphasised the fact that one believed that it was important to give due weight to section 174(2).

One could have added that this did not meant that one believed that every judge was a prisoner of his or her race or gender or that one believed that all women thought the same, all Africans thought the same, or that all Indians thought the same. On the contrary, one could have said, it is racist and deeply demeaning to Africans and Indians (and to men and women) to assume that a person is no more and no less than the sum total of his or her racial or gender identity, to assume that each person has no autonomy to decide for himself or herself how to respond to a particular situation. Nevertheless, one could have added, it cannot be denied that on the whole one’s life experiences and one’s cultural background and one’s religious beliefs would often play some (but not an overarching) role in how one behaved and what kind of manager one might become.

This would have been a perfectly acceptable answer not shying away from the fact that race does and should play some role when considering appointments to the bench. However Judge Madondo did not provide this answer in his interview and neither did he provide a similar answer much later after he had had a chance to reflect on the matter.

I thought, giving the judge the benefit of the doubt, that the crudeness of his original answer and his inability to discuss the complex issue of racial transformation in the judiciary in a nuanced manner may have been excused because of the stress associated with a JSC interview. On reflection he would surely be able to conjure up the better, constitutionally valid, and more subtle answer — as we all do when we are caught out and we have time to reflect on what we might have said.

But to my surprise, this is not what happened, leaving us with the impression that the judge is not capable of producing the more subtle and constitutionally viable version of his answer. In an interview in the Sunday Times, conducted after his remarks had made headlines, the judge made an even bigger hash of the questions put to him. Here is a sample of his responses:

But you don’t think an Indian judge should be JP? No, that’s misquoted altogether.

You were asked if it was time to appoint an Indian JP and you said, “I don’t think so.” Is that what you said? Yes. I stated my reasons.

So that’s an accurate quote? It’s out of context. What I was saying, in terms of the demographics, I don’t think so. Secondly, there are a number of hardships among the people who suffered. A person from another race may not be in a position to know them in the same way as I do. That’s what I was saying. Not because he’s an Indian.

Because he’s not black? No, that’s nonsense. If someone thinks like that, it’s nonsense.

You’re saying that, as an Indian, he doesn’t have the same insight? Do you have an insight of the rural people in the villages? Do you? Unless you have an insight into the way they live and the hardship of their experience …

So should only Zulus be appointed to the bench in KZN? I don’t even want to answer that question because it doesn’t make sense at all.

Wouldn’t only Zulus have that kind of insight? No. I was not saying that. I’m talking about equal representation in terms of the demographics; I was not saying only Zulus must be appointed judges in KZN. That’s nonsense.

It is not clear why insight of rural people will make one a better Judge President. It might well add something to one’s abilities to perform well as a judge dealing with matters normally brought to court by rural people — after all, understanding the lives of those who appear before one may (but does not always) lead to decisions that are wiser and better informed. But a Judge President’s job is mostly administrative in nature and he or she will seldom if ever hear cases in which the litigants are rural village dwellers. The Judge President decides who is allocated which case and ensures the smooth running of his court, but how his African background would make him  better at this job is not immediately clear. If he had the backing of the majority of judges or of all the African judges in his division, this might have been relevant, but he does not so his race could not be relevant in this manner.

In any case the failure of the Judge to provide a credible and nuanced answer to an admittedly tricky question — not once, but twice — leaves one puzzled. Either judge Madondo has very crude views on race and racial transformation or he lacks the emotional intelligence to reflect on and revise his answers for the better. Either way, based on his responses to the JSC and the Sunday Times, it is not clear that he would make a suitable Judge President for the KwaZulu-Natal or any other division of the High Court.

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