Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron. Picture: THE TIMES
Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron. Picture: THE TIMES

The retirement of one of SA’s legal giants will leave a noticeable space on the bench of the country’s apex court.

Justice Edwin Cameron, 66, hung up his robes on Tuesday, calling time on his 25-year career in the judicial service.

He spent more than a decade of those years as one of the 11 justices of the Constitutional Court. He is lauded across the board for not only his judicial acumen, but his activism and humaneness. This high praise is deserved.

More than just his judgments, his legacy has made a telling contribution to the development of post-apartheid SA law.

Worryingly, his retirement leaves the Constitutional Court with three vacancies. President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to make appointments to two of the positions, which opened up in 2017 and for which the Judicial Service Commission has submitted a shortlist of five candidates.

There are no timelines set in the constitution in which these appointments need to be made. But Cameron’s departure makes a new appointment ever more urgent as the court, which Cameron says has been extraordinarily busy, has had to rely on acting judges over the past two years.

The absence of deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, who is out until March 2020 leading public hearings into state capture, compounds the problem.

These appointments — which carry a 12-year security of tenure to enhance independence — are critical as the members of the court are seen as the guardians of our cherished constitution.

It is critical for Ramaphosa to ensure our supreme law is embodied by a full bench of permanent judges as the government deals with politically charged goals such as altering the constitution to ease land seizure without compensation.

The past decade in SA has shown the importance of an independent judiciary, which became the last bastion of sanity in a country where large-scale bribery, fraud and corruption were endemic.

Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola praised Cameron and his colleagues on Tuesday, saying they saved SA from total collapse.

In his address during his special ceremonial sitting this week Cameron said he had told his colleagues when he started serving that the first 15 years of the court’s existence were the easy ones and that they would become more difficult. This turned out to be true, he said, and warned that the court will now face even tougher times than it has over the past decade.

Looking at recent attacks on the judiciary is to see why his prediction might come true. The most vindictive have come from EFF leader Julius Malema, who has accused judges of being biased and that they would force the EFF into the bush.

As recently as Wednesday, it was reported that Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, an ally of former president Jacob Zuma, questioned why there was no oversight of the judiciary.

Of course, this totally glosses over the work of the judicial conduct committee, which is empowered to recommend to the Judicial Service Commission that a complaint be investigated and reported on by a judicial conduct tribunal appointed by the chief justice on recommendation of the JSC.

But when judges are openly attacked on Twitter, in interviews and in statements, one cannot help but read it in a most cynical light.

Given the state of law in SA, in which state functionaries who have failed to do their job or to act rationally and lawfully have been hauled before the courts, one can only expect that the attacks will intensify. In the post-Zuma era the stakes are high and for some the endgame is simply to stay out of jail.

It is a dangerous game affecting us all as citizens benefiting from the rule of law. SA cannot afford to have the public lose trust in the judiciary and its independence. Our constitutional democracy, to which Cameron and those who have come before him have contributed so immensely, depends on it.