EDITORIAL: Perilous to use judiciary as a punching bag
Threats to judges are dangerous in an increasingly polarised ANC where infighting trumps democratic values
In the past few days, Pietermaritzburg high court judge Dhayanithie Pillay has come under increasing fire from politicians angered by her issuing a warrant of arrest for former president Jacob Zuma.
Pillay ordered the arrest — which has been suspended until the next court hearing in the first week of May — last week after Zuma failed to show up for a scheduled court hearing related to corruption charges over a multibillion-rand deal in the 1990s to buy European military equipment.
Zuma’s failure to make an appearance was blamed on ill-health, and his lawyers produced a doctor’s note to prove it, which was rightly scrutinised by Pillay as is standard practice with any evidence brought before a judge.
Her assessment, backed by the Health Professions Council of SA, a watchdog for doctors and other health-care workers, found that the note was vague, had no signature from the issuing doctor and had dates that appeared to have been altered.
On that basis, Pillay rejected it and issued a warrant of arrest, triggering a wave of angry reactions from supporters of the former president, including the president of the ANC Women’s League, Bathabile Dlamini. Dlamini criticised Pillay’s order as “nothing but a personal vendetta” that points to an “invisible hand that would really want to see him dead or his legacy and personal image destroyed”.
The ANC’s national youth task team, which was set up eight years ago to rebuild the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), also launched a blistering attack on the judiciary, saying the warrant of arrest was a “ploy to vilify Zuma” and accusing the judiciary of turning itself into a “public opinion arena” with “highly questionable conduct”.
“We warn the judiciary and its friends. Do not threaten the peace of our country. Do not threaten the patience of our people. If you start a fire, you are bound to see flames,” reads the statement from the task team, which counts justice minister Ronald Lamola, transport minister Fikile Mbalula, minister of sport & culture Nathi Mthethwa and public service & administration minister Senzo Mchunu as its members. Other high-profile members are state security deputy minister Zizi Kodwa and finance deputy minister David Masondo.
They have yet to distance themselves from it, but Lamola has said as minister that SA will become a “banana republic” if the judiciary is not respected. The ANC’s powerful national working committee in the wake of the statement merely said that “henceforth all public statements of the ANCYL must be compliant with acceptable and established organisational protocols”.
Zuma, who was at the centre of the state capture allegations, has already made his disdain for the judiciary and the criminal justice system clear, and every time he appears in court on graft charges related to the multibillion-rand arms deal he waxes lyrical about how the prosecution is politically motivated.
Attacking the judiciary for political reasons is not exactly a new pastime for supporters of a politician feeling the heat from the criminal justice system but it is dangerous in an increasingly polarised ruling party where infighting trumps basic democratic values.
It’s no secret that the ANC is split between those still flying the flag for Zuma and those in the camp of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who emerged with a tenuous grip on power when he won the party internal election in December 2017.
By and large, the vicious infighting is behind the governing party’s failure to push through structural reforms such as reining in the public sector wage bill and fixing bloated state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in order to put the economy, which has barely grown in the past 10 years, back on a robust growth path.
By virtue of his shaky hold on power, Ramaphosa cannot, at least with speed and force, follow through on his neoliberal agenda for fear of making the labour and other left-leaning elements within the party easy pickings for the so-called fightback brigade.
It is bad enough that the infighting has locked ANC into paralysis but it will be wise for the those defending Zuma or any other politician to take the brute internal warfare away from the judiciary, whose independence is enshrined in what is hailed as the world’s most progressive constitution.