The last shortlisted Chief Justice candidate, Justice Raymond Zondo, was relieved of the JSC Hot Seat after a 12-hour session. It was another troubling interview when Zondo faced gunfire from commissioners who were clearly opposed to his candidacy due to his work on State Capture.
Some of the most unsettling parts of a horror movie are the opening scenes. You are aware that something terrible must be just around the corner and your body is rigid with tension, waiting for it. On the surface, everything you see on screen is calm and pleasant, save for a few ominous signs: the eerie sounds of a breeze moving through wind chimes, or the creepy tinkle of a child’s old-fashioned music box. But it’s impossible to relax because you know with every fiber of your being that all is not what it seems. When the inevitable jumping terror finally arrives, his shock is accompanied by a strange sense of relief.
The first two-thirds of the interview with Judge Raymond Zondo was a bit like those opening scenes. How polite the inspectors seemed and how straightforward the procedures compared to the turbulence of the previous day. Zondo was allowed to set out its priorities for the judiciary, with a focus on modernizing the judicial infrastructure and increasing the independence of the judiciary, with Zondo being particularly determined.
He had defended the fact that term limits on Constitutional Court judges meant he could only serve for two and a half years as Chief Justice, citing the tenure of former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo (2009-2011) as a precedent for the possibility of serving within a limited time to make significant progress. The commissioners didn’t even seem interested in turning the issue into a meal, which was somewhat unexpected as it seemed a major concern in the interview with Judge Mbuyiseli Madlanga, but perhaps their thirst for blood had been temporarily quenched by the previous day’s feast about Judge Dunstan Mlambo.
The focus of questioning had in due course shifted to Zondo’s high-profile work as chairman of the State Conquest Inquiry Commission, where the judge revealed he had accepted the job out of a sense of patriotic duty after a number of other judges professionals had turned it down. Zondo assured the commission that he would have no hesitation in making adverse findings against President Cyril Ramaphosa should the need arise.
Then the first eerie tones of the wind chime rang out as Commissioner Julius Malema demanded to know why Zondo had failed to issue a subpoena to subpoena former spy chief Arthur Fraser to testify before the State Capture investigation and possibly put the lid on the Uses revealed an alleged secret service slush fund of R9 billion. There was a certain distinct sharpness to Malema’s voice, but in a truly startling development – by the standards of the previous day’s proceedings – Chair Xola Petse instructed Malema to “moderate your tone”. It went up and down.
Zondo stated that the timing of the Fraser-related hearings had evolved in such a way that it eventually proved impossible to hear his testimony without significantly lengthening the length of the commission’s life, of which the judge knew, that she was already the subject of great public misfortune. He added that the NPA can still investigate the relevant matters.
At this point, a certain murmur of unease began among observers of the JSC interview process about whether it was entirely appropriate for Zondo to be questioned about aspects of the State Capture investigation for which the results had not yet been released and may not even have been published have been written. But in the broader context – namely that of a JSC who had turned a judge’s entire reputation into an exhilarating pyre the day before – it really seemed like a pretty small thing considering it was all going relatively smoothly.
Shortly thereafter, Zondo announced to the commission, with the innocence of a pure heart that expects others to do the same, that he would meet with Ramaphosa from time to time during the investigation to brief the appropriate executive branch for the commission’s appointment on matters such as budgetary constraints , but also to keep up with “progress” — a word so vague that anyone in the mood can stuff any kind of sinister meaning into it.
Call out the spooky ringing of the child’s old-fashioned music box. Malema is always in the mood. After raising suspicions about the real necessity of these meetings between Ramaphosa and Zondo, he accused the judge of delaying the release of the Zondo Commission’s final report in order to avoid criticizing Ramaphosa before the president’s election of the colonel Richter’s met.
“I never thought about that angle, Commissioner Malema,” Zondo replied with warm interest, in exactly the same tone he might have used if Malema had instead suggested that Zondo try pairing his scarlet tie with a matching pocket square .
“If there’s one thing I want behind me, it’s the work of the Commission.”
Zondo explained that the decision as to which parts of the report to release and when was based solely on which parts were closest to completion.
Meanwhile, at least one possible element of the narrative arc designed for Zondo’s interview by resident JSC saboteurs was slowly coming into ominous focus: questioning about procedural aspects of the state capture investigation, growing doubts about the judge’s motives and integrity, and hence to sow at pollution the results of the investigative report. For those of us who, after four days of interview procedures, had developed an early warning system for signs of an imminent JSC-Zure, the sensors began to blink.
But surely it was possible that all would still be redeemed—certainly if Judge Zondo continued to beam avuncularly and greet every question as if it really merited worthy reflection; as if everything was as it should be, as if JSC commissioners were motivated by nothing more than a thirst to contribute to the democratic process, a passion for the transformative potential of jurisprudence and a genuine desire to embrace the qualities of the country’s most respected jurists to explore …
All last shreds of hope for the existence of this alternate universe were swept away by the spectacle shortly after Malema denounced Zondo by saying, “If a person says ‘House N*****’ and I’m not ‘House N* ****’, why should that bother me?”
The ostensibly higher purpose of this questioning was to question Zondo’s decision, as acting Chief Justice, to call a press conference in January to defend the judiciary against Lindiwe Sisulu’s insults. This choice of course of action has occupied the JSC since day one of the Chief Justice interviews, with every candidate before Zondo being more or less encouraged to criticize the course of action on the grounds that it may amount to a judge getting into the political Terrain invades a path that blurs the division between the arms of the state.
The renegade commissioners now running the show at JSC, in contrast, have shown almost no interest in asking candidates to convict Sisulu, an incumbent member of the executive branch, for entering court territory in a manner that the The state blurs the distinction between arms, although an indisputable argument can be made in this respect and almost none in the other.
Each of the three judges before Zondo at the JSC interview site has made it clear that they find nothing remotely reprehensible in Zondo’s conduct in this regard. The JSC’s apparent devotion to fomenting a wholly false sense of impropriety in this matter is extraordinarily problematic, considering that commissioners should certainly be expected to be animated by the same kind of desire, as Zondo demonstrated: to protect the judiciary from external attacks. This week’s JSC proceedings have found fairly unequivocally that this is not the case, which must set off some serious alarm bells.
But the true meaning of these words from Malema to Zondo – “If a person says ‘House N*****’ and I’m not ‘House N*****’, why should that bother me?” — is infinitely more grotesque and needs to be spelled out because Malema and his cronies are deliberately operating in the guise of a shadowy world of duplicity and plausible denial: If you weren’t a ‘House N****’ yourself, Judge Zondo, you wouldn’t be so offended been.
What’s the point of even trying to outline the rest of the JSC process? Zondo would continue to be accused by Malema of improper intimacy with former President Jacob Zuma because in the EFF’s conceptual universe it is possible to be an apparatchik of both Zuma and Ramaphosa at the same time. None of this needs to make sense: the intent is simply to kick enough dirt in the direction of a Chief Justice candidate like Zondo in a sufficiently frantic manner to render his appointment untenable.
A full-blown shouting match eventually ensued between Malema and Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, while Malema executed a time-saving strategy to take out two judges at once by pointing out irregularities in Zondo’s appointment of Mlambo as acting judge via the Constitutional Court.
After formally interrupting Zondo’s interview, which the judge somehow managed to finish and still exuded kindness and decency, Presiding Officer Xola Petse read an email to the commissioners, which the public should not hear because Petse thought the cameras were off been. It was from a legal scholar at Rhodes University who expressed acute concern over the Chief Justice’s interview process that had just concluded and implored the Chair to consider starting the process from scratch.
Otherwise, she warned, the prospect of a legal challenge is very real.
Petse read the email aloud with an unabashed grin, and just before the error was noticed and the cameras turned off, the inspectors were shown wondering why members of the public were even allowed to close the JSC in this way to contact.
As expected, the last word went to Commissioner Dali Mpofu, the former EFF chairman and Zuma’s lawyer.
“We’ve been abused by all kinds of people all week,” he lamented.
“We cannot just be freely abused. We are human too! We can only take so much.” DM