Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo attends the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo attends the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

A constitutional democracy is a noisy place. Everyone can share their opinions, of course within limits, as loudly as they want to. This includes criticising and speaking truth to power as often as you want. 

But when influential politicians start hitting out at the judiciary without any proof of the allegations they make, there can be very serious consequences for one of the key pillars of democracy. 

Former president Jacob Zuma and EFF leader Julius Malema both lashed out at the judiciary this week. 

Zuma’s attack was twofold: first, he defied a Constitutional Court order which compelled him to give evidence before the state capture commission; and second, he upped the ante in his verbal attacks against deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, Gauteng judge president Dunstan Mlambo and SA’s highest court. 

It is important to note that Zondo has tried to get Zuma to provide his version of the story on serious allegations of state capture, while Mlambo heads the court which merely by jurisdiction has heard multiple politically sensitive court cases in which Zuma has been taken to task, including the judgment that got corruption charges against him reinstated. 

Attacking these two judges can therefore only be self-serving, given that there is absolutely no proof that they have abused their positions. 

In explaining why he was defying the apex court’s order, Zuma said “it is not the authority of the Constitutional Court that I reject, but its abuse by a few judges. It is not our law that I defy, but a few lawless judges who have left their constitutional post for political expediency.”

The reality is, however, that this is merely an insidious campaign amateurishly masked by victimhood with the clear aim of undermining the credibility of the judiciary, which makes it easier to cry foul when the next judgment is delivered against you. 

Malema, who like Zuma faces criminal charges, on the other hand decided to launch a broadside during the state of the nation debate in parliament this week. 

Malema said the EFF cannot continue to bury its head “in the sand against growing and now believable allegations that some prominent members of the judiciary are in the payroll of the white capitalist establishment”. He provided no evidence for this serious allegation. 

Judges are of course not beyond reproach and should be taken to task when there are legitimate problems, just as chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has for his public pronouncements on matters such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict and, more recently, the efficacy of vaccines. What is not acceptable is people making baseless allegations against judges when they are merely doing their job.

There are specific systems in place to ensure that those who fall foul of doing their jobs or use their powers for nefarious purposes are held to account, such as going through the Judicial Service Commission.  

No formal complaint has been laid against any judge in the country by either Malema or Zuma. If they can get the proof, that’s where they should go.

We can only agree with justice minister Ronald Lamola when he reaffirmed the role of the judiciary in our democracy. In reply to Malema’s attack on judges, he didn’t mince his words:

“An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. Attacks, allegations and conspiracies against the judiciary can erode the confidence of society in the judiciary if not followed up with facts and conclusive investigations.”

It is how the institutions tasked to uphold the rule of law keep standing when they are under attack, as it has been countless times before, that will be important.

For now, we should believe that South Africans will see the attacks for what they are: desperate attempts to pre-empt any possible judgments in the future. Anything to the contrary will be devastating for our constitutional democracy.    

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