What is going on in South Africa?

While there might be much political noise in the system, it is the strength and integrity of our institutions that will see us through turbulent times. Professionals, particularly in their organised form, have a major role to play in ensuring that our institutions remain strong pillars of society. It is therefore concerning that organised professions are eerily silent when things like the IRBA fiasco or the corruption of State-Owned Entities cast a dark cloud over our future. Here I want to highlight some of the issues in relation to which the organised law profession should have been, and should still be, more vocal.

At least five incidents that happened over the last 13 years have cumulatively led me to a point where I could no longer ignore a pattern that forced me to reflect on this question, and wonder why the organised law profession remains so supine in the face of what, in my view, goes against the constitutional values that we all – at least ostensibly – cherish. It is my hope that by this contribution, I shall prick the conscience of all lawyers to engage more publicly on matters that affect the law and its application. After all, this is their space.

The First Incident: Justices of the Constitutional Court against a Judge President

The first incident started in May 2008, when Justices of the Constitutional Court released a media statement accusing a Judge President of seeking improperly to influence two of their number (and by extension, they said, the entire Constitutional Court) on the outcome of a case on which they were then deliberating.

The accusation was, in my view, quite extraordinary. If you understand (among other things) how the court system works, the process of judgment writing in an appeal court comprising multiple judges, the concept of judicial independence indelibly carved into s 165(2) of the South African Constitution, the presumption of impartiality in a judge, and the concept that judges are presumed to know the law, that accusation would strike you as – well – extraordinary in its extravagance. We all await the decision of the Judicial Conduct Tribunal. So, I shan’t comment on its merits.

The accusation did strike me as extravagant, so much so that I was moved by principle to take up the Judge President’s case in 2008 when the Constitutional Court Justices eventually lodged a complaint with the Judicial Service Commission. The JSC dismissed the complaint in June 2009, but Justice Johann Kriegler and his Freedom Under Law successfully reviewed that decision in the Supreme Court of Appeal, after losing in the High Court.

The case ended up before the Constitutional Court itself in record time within 6 months of the SCA decision and was postponed for two months for reasons of quorum. I took what I thought was a basic rule of natural justice: that Justices who were complainants against the Judge President cannot decide the case. Well, they did. So, I decided I would play no further part in what I considered a clear case of conflict of interest and therefore plainly wrong. Three of the complainant Justices (who are, ironically, even cited as parties in the judgment of the Constitutional Court) formed part of that bench. The Constitutional Court unanimously dismissed the Judge President’s leave to appeal.

In a fair society that is governed by the rule of law, what played out in the Constitutional Court would have been unthinkable. Complainant Justices made a decision that ensured that their complaint (which had been dismissed by the JSC) was re-opened and, they hoped, decided in their favour.

The organised profession said nothing critical of this glaring injustice. Instead, the Cape society of advocates and the General Council of the Bar of which it is a constituent member, encouraged it. At that time, in 2008, I expressed my disappointment publicly in a piece I titled “The Bruising of Our Constitution” and four years later in a lecture I titled “When Expedience Trumps The Rule of Law – Lecture version“. I urge you to read both.

The Second Incident: Efforts to Remove the Public Protector

The second incident is the political process currently underway for the removal of a Constitutional Creation, the Public Protector. I have acted for the Public Protector on brief. I have also acted against the Public Protector on brief. I do not believe she is incompetent or dishonest. Like all lawyers, including judges, she occasionally misdirects herself on the law and on the facts. That does not render her dishonest or incompetent. It renders her human.

The unusually strong language of the courts in their criticism of the Public Protector appears to have buoyed politicians aggrieved by the Public Protector’s findings against them or their own to mount a spirited campaign to remove her from office, mainstream media and NGOs generally being trusted allies in that campaign. The voice of the organised law profession is on mute.

We now learn from media reports that a panel appointed by Parliament has found that there is a prima facie case of incompetence against the Public Protector. With that, Parliament will now vote on whether or not she should be removed. But what exactly is the case for the removal of the Public Protector? The starting point is a valid comparison with the judiciary.

Section 181(2) of the Constitution requires chapter nine institutions to be, like Judges, independent, and subject only to the Constitution and the law. They are also expected to be impartial and exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear, favour or prejudice.

Section 1A(3) of the Public Protector Act says:

“The Public Protector shall be a South African citizen who is a fit and proper person to hold such office, and who-

  • is a Judge of a High Court; or
  • is admitted as an advocate or an attorney and has, for a cumulative period of at least 10 years after having been so admitted, practised as an advocate or an attorney; or
  • is qualified to be admitted as an advocate or an attorney and has, for a cumulative period of at least 10 years after having so qualified, lectured in law at a university; or
  • has specialised knowledge of or experience, for a cumulative period of at least 10 years, in the administration of justice, public administration or public finance; or
  • has, for a cumulative period of at least 10 years, been a member of Parliament; or
  • has acquired any combination of experience mentioned in paragraphs (b) to (e), for a cumulative period of at least 10 years.”

When the politicians voted to have her appointed in 2016, they were satisfied – after questioning and cross-examining her in proceedings that were carried live on electronic media – that she met these requirements. So, when did they change their minds?

Before I venture a theoretical answer (and I put it no higher than that) to this question, it is important to appreciate the common existential features between Judges, on the one hand, and the Public Protector, on the other. That being so, they should be held up to the same standard.

I highlight some of those similarities in the table immediately below.

The Public Protector has been accused of being incompetent and biased because a handful of her remedial actions have been overturned in court. It appears that to those who lay this charge, the hundreds of other remedial actions that have not been challenged or set aside are irrelevant. But let us explore this charge for her removal.

Given the striking similarities in the required standard between judges and the Public Protector, as I have summarised in the table above, it is necessary to ask: Is a Judge whose judgments are set aside on appeal, or who makes a ruling based on wrong legal principles, incompetent or biased?  If the answer to that question is no, why should it be yes in respect of the Public Protector?

The Constitutional Court answered that question in S v Basson 2007 (3) SA 582 (CC) (“Basson II”).

In that case the State raised a litany of complaints against the trial Judge, accusing him of bias because he “erred consistently” and in favour of the accused. Among the examples mentioned were

  • that the trial Judge admitted evidence taken on commission in the USA without permitting the accused to respond to that evidence
  • that the trial Judge permitted 2 State Counsel to cross-examine the accused
  • that the trial Judge “misunderstood much the evidence presented” and made erroneous factual findings that were prejudicial to the State and exculpatory of the accused
  • that the trial Judge accepted implausible evidence from Dr Basson which was contradictory and not borne out by the record
  • that the trial Judge dismissed the State’s objection to a line of cross-examination that sought to establish whether the witness had discussed his guilt with his attorney. The ground for the objection was that the information sought was subject to attorney-client privilege. The trial Judge dismissed the objection on the ground that privilege attaches to the attorney and not the client – a novel idea in our law.

The Constitutional Court accepted that these were “misdirections” by the trial Judge. But did it find that this was evidence of bias or incompetence or failure to apply the law impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice? No. It said:

“[100] In respect of this second category of complaints, it is clear that at least one of the trial Judge’s interlocutory rulings was based on wrong legal principles and we accept that in many of the examples referred to by the State another court might have reached a different conclusion on the facts. Some aspects of the evidence of the respondent (for example, as to the financial principals) appear somewhat improbable to us. However, this Court is not sitting in judgment on the factual findings made by the trial Court. It is the issue of bias which has to be adjudicated.

[101] The fact that a trial Judge may make an interlocutory ruling mistakenly does not provide weighty material to support a conclusion of bias. Nor does the Judge’s refusal to exercise his discretion to call further witnesses.”

Making decisions founded on an incorrect appreciation of the law or legal principles does not establish bias or bad faith. This is what the Constitutional Court tells us in Basson II.

Failing to observe the audi principle does not by itself justify an inference of bias. This is what the SCA tells us in Competition Commission v The GCB 2002 (6) SA 606 (SCA), para [16].

Committing procedural irregularities in an investigation is not to act in bad faith. In any event, there are remedies in law for that, including a review application.

So, why would these errors found a case for the impeachment of a Public Protector (who is as much a Constitutional creation as a Judge) when it does not when a Judge commits the same errors? Why should a factual misdirection by this Public Protector be characterised as “dishonesty” when it is not so characterised when a Judge does the same?

This Public Protector’s predecessor also occasionally misdirected herself in law and fact. Not once, to my recollection, did Parliament talk of impeaching her – and rightly so. I have done a brief comparative analysis of the two Public Protectors in a blog titled A Tale of Two Public Protectors: Separating Fact from Fiction“.

Back to the question I posed earlier. Having voted overwhelmingly in favour of the appointment of this Public Protector after being convinced that she had met the requirements in section 1A(3) of the Public Protector Act, when did the politicians in Parliament change their tune and wish her impeached?

Was it when she, within a year of her appointment, issued a report – that had already been substantially prepared under her predecessor – directing that ABSA Bank pay back R1.125 Billion to the Reserve Bank that the Reserve Bank had unlawfully gifted to ABSA Bank and the banks it had taken over? But she is not alone in that finding. Two judges of the High Court, in separate investigations, made the same finding that the Reserve Bank subvention to ABSA bank and the banks it had acquired was illegal. In fact, they said it was fraudulent, characterising it as “a simulated transaction”. So, it can’t be that, surely?

Was it when she started investigating the President and the Speaker of Parliament herself, and making findings against them both? The Speaker is currently facing criminal charges as a result of the Public Protector’s findings against her. The President is fighting vigorously in the courts to keep hidden from the public the identity of donors to his 2017 presidential campaign. The Public Protector put him in that position by her findings in a report. But the President and Parliament have a constitutional obligation to protect the Public Protector. So, the fact that she made findings against the President and the Speaker can surely not be the reason?

Was it when she poked the hornet’s nest in the form of the goings-on at the South African Revenue Service, to the chagrin of a minister who seems beyond any form of accountability? Surely, that cannot be the reason?

In section 181(3) the South African Constitution imposes an obligation on all organs of state (and that includes Parliament) to

“assist and protect [the Public Protector] to ensure [her] independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness”

In section 165(4), the Constitution imposes the same obligation on organs of state in relation to Judges. So, why are the politicians in Parliament impeaching the Public Protector instead of assisting and protecting her to ensure her independence, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness, when the Judicial Service Commission has yet to impeach a Judge for committing the same errors? That, in my view, is one of the questions that members of Parliament will have to answer when they deliberate on their impeachment process.

Will the organised law profession speak up?

The Third Incident: Public Personal Attack on the Judiciary

The third incident is that of a retired Justice of the Constitutional Court – Justice Johann Kriegler – publicly calling for a Judge President to be suspended. Why? Well, because he disagrees with a judgment that the Judge President has made. And then the JSC found it necessary to respond, publicly:

“The JSC cannot just, when there may be some unhappiness about a judgment, proceed to suspend a judge – that’s not how it works.”

 Justice Kriegler knows this. He knows that appealable judgments can be set aside on appeal. If there is some irregularity, the judgment can be set aside on review. So, why has he chosen to mount a public personal attack on the Judge President, at a time when politicians are being criticised – rightly – for doing exactly the same thing?

The Pan-African Bar Association of South Africa (PABASA) has issued a measured statement cautioning leaders and all citizens about the dangers of precisely this conduct.

Will other members of the organised law profession speak up?

The Fourth Incident: The State Capture Commission

The fourth incident is the thoroughly undignified spat between the State Capture Commission and a former President. A former President defies not only a summons from the Commission but also an order of the Constitutional Court. In an unprecedented move, the Commission rushes to the Constitutional Court to force a witness to testify, instead of invoking the powers conferred on it by law. The Constitutional Court obliges the Commission on the thinnest ground and after pointing out that the Commission is the victim of its own insouciance towards the former President.

Now the Commission wants the former President jailed for 2 years, something that is beyond the powers of the Commission to ask (ultra vires) in terms of the empowering legislation.

A number of questions arise.

  • If the former President believes the Commission’s summons to be unlawful, why does he not challenge it in court instead of defying it?
  • Why does the Commission insist on the former President giving evidence while there is a pending application in the High Court reviewing the refusal of the chair to recuse himself?
  • And why did the Constitutional Court choose not to pronounce on that dynamic when it ordered the former President to honour lawful summons? Surely it must have anticipated that this issue would arise?

The former President has been roundly condemned for his conduct, and rightly so. But why is the conduct of the commission and the Constitutional Court acceptable?

Will the organised law profession speak up on all these?

The Fifth Incident: CR17 donations

The fifth incident is the keeping from the voting public of the detail of the donors and beneficiaries of a presidential campaign. The matter is still in the courts and so I shan’t pronounce on its merits here. My curiosity is the generally supine attitude of the organised law profession. One would have expected the profession, playing the role of custos morum of the profession, to be sounding a word of caution when a President goes to court to suppress the publication of details of his presidential campaign funding.

Granted, though extraordinarily short-sighted, some may argue that lawyers cannot get involved because their services may invariably be engaged for one or other side in this litigation. But instructions go to individual firms and advocates, not to the organised law profession as representative bodies of the profession. For example, why does the Legal Practice Council see no need to sound a word of caution on the lack of transparency on this issue which clearly goes to the heart of a constitutional principle?

The organised law profession has ammunition provided by the Constitutional Court in My Vote Counts in these terms:

“Secrecy enables corruption and conduces more to a disposition by politicians that is favourable towards those who funded them privately once elected into public office…” 


“If the door is left open to potentially or actually compromised political parties or independent candidates to be voted into and hold public office, then the government birthed by such flawed political players could hardly be described as truly based on the “will” of the people. That government or legislative body would not find it easy to implement the good governance and efficiency-enhancing practices prescribed by section 195 of the Constitution.”


“The foundational values of our constitutional democracy like openness, responsiveness, accountability and the realisation of the constitutional vision of building a united nation and improving the quality of life of all, could thus be at the mercy of unknown and even unscrupulous funders. For, there is indeed no free lunch. This is not to say that all funders are, without more, intent on furthering selfish or sectional interests at the expense of national interests. But some big political campaign funders even in old democracies have been exposed as being inclined “to use money for improper purposes”. They reportedly tend to determine or influence in a meaningful way, the policy-direction to be pursued by those in whose political life or fortunes they “invested” their resources. And when elected public office-bearers are illegitimately dictated to, that is likely to poison the broader political landscape and governance, thus weakening or throttling our shared values and constitutional vision. Lack of transparency on private funding provides fertile and well-watered ground for corruption or the deception of voters.”


“Transparency in the area of the private funding of political parties and independent candidates helps in the detection or discouragement of improper influence and the fight against corruption.”

So why does the organised law profession not use this ammunition to, at the very least, sound a word of caution, thereby acting (to the extent that it does) as a conscience to the media to blow wide open the whole secrecy in the public interest?

Will the organised law profession speak up?