In his 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language, George Orwell succeeded in surgically peeling off the veneer of prosaic respectability from what passes for “modern” English to expose the ugly lies ignominiously hidden beneath.

Mourning the perversion of the English language – ostensibly in the name of modernism but, in truth, with a view to obfuscating and deceiving – he observed that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes.

Perhaps unfairly, Orwell’s essay sprang to mind when I read a take by the Daily Maverick on a lecture by Judge President Mlambo. I knew immediately that I had to get my hands on it and read it myself. A quote in the Daily Maverick piece left me puzzled and wishing to understand more.

So, I set out to find the lecture itself, and sat down to read it. Wow!

Daily Maverick quoted the Judge President as saying:

“There are no longer assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics; while they are not the same they are necessarily and inherently linked”

In fact, what the Judge President said – quoting former Chief Justice Langa – was this:

“[T]here is no longer place for assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics.  While they are not the same, they are inherently and necessarily linked”

Read the two quotes again, carefully, especially the first part of each.

A statement that “there are no longer assertions” about a particular worldview is a very different proposition from a statement that says “there is no longer a place for assertions” of that particular worldview. The former is a statement of fact, and whether or not the fact is well-founded is something that can be pursued with the speaker by fact checkers. The latter, however, is the expression of an opinion which is not measured for its plausibility merely by checking facts. One has to go beyond that and probe the reasoning. Facts answer to questions like “what”, “when”, “where” “who”, “how”. Opinions answer to “why”.

Whether or not there are still assertions that law can be kept isolated from politics is to me irrelevant. As a proposition of fact it does nothing to stimulate the necessary national debate and enquiry about whether or not politics plays a role in the determination of cases in the course of Judges applying, in their minds, the law. Of much interest to me, as a lawyer who appears regularly in South African courts, is the proposition that there is no longer a place for assertions that the law can be kept isolated from politics, and that these are inherently and necessarily linked. Now, that piques my interest.

The Daily Maverick piece left me puzzled and wanting to understand more about the lecture because there is a clear dissonance (at least to me) between the first part of the quote and the second. If there are no longer assertions that law can be kept isolated from politics, then to what end must the reader be told in the same sentence that these two are inherently and necessarily linked, except to call readers to arms to demand that assertions that law can be kept isolated from politics remain a distant memory? In other words, why would the speaker tell me that law and politics are inherently and necessarily linked if he wants to discourage me from asserting that law can be kept isolated from politics? It is this disconnect in the Daily Maverick piece that piqued my interest.

Whether the disconnect is deliberate or a function of editorial negligence I do not know. I am just happy I picked up on it and read the lecture myself.

I have always maintained that Judges should emerge from behind their judicial shield and express their worldview on matters of public interest. The bench is not a monastery or convent where Judges have taken a religious vow not to engage in conversations about matters of national interest wherever they find themselves. They are citizens with socio-political interests and preferences before they become Judges. Those interests and preferences do not vanish upon people donning judicial robes or taking the oath to uphold the Constitution.

Judges are also fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands and taxpayers and are also affected by politics as the rest of us. So, to believe that Judges are immune to political influence or consideration – whether by design or by coincidence – when determining some cases, is in my view astonishing naivete.

That is why the lecture of the Judge President on Transformative Constitutionalism, and the role of Judges in it, comes as a welcome relief for me from the suffocating pretence by many members of the public that Judges are above politics. How can they be when they are political beings, appointed by a politician through a political process and in terms of a document that is a product of political detante: the Constitution?

By saying this I do not for a moment suggest that Judges should turn politicians or that they are politicians. Far from it. The point I make is that Judges are creatures of politics and cannot escape politics whether they wish to do so or not. It is not in their hands. It is in the nature of their work and in the subconscious mind of human beings with socio-economic and political experiences, interests and preferences.

As I understand the Judge President, he posits that Judges in post-apartheid South Africa must, of necessity, break from the self-imposed judicial strictures of unyielding notions of un-rehabilitated common law. He points to a number of cases (known to lawyers who practise in these courts) to demonstrate the reluctance of some Judges to unshackle their judicial grounding from common law that has been overtaken by the new constitutional grundnorm or ethos. The notion that the law exists in a gilded world of its own, unsullied by the politics of the day, is not only imagined by those who hold that view; it is also an impediment to Transformative Constitutionalism. That is what I understand the Judge President as saying.

To that end, the Judge President calls in aid cases like Beadica, a Constitutional Court judgment that reminds Judges that they

“must not lose sight of the transformative mandate of our Constitution.  Transformative adjudication requires courts to “search for substantive justice, which is to be inferred from the foundational values of the Constitution . . . that is the injunction of the Constitution – transformation.”

The idea that law and politics should not mix, and that Judges should steer clear of politics, is in my view uninformed. Again, by that thesis one is not saying Judges should turn politicians. But what Judges cannot avoid is make decisions steeped in politics. Whether that is by design or by coincidence only the Judge in question will know. For example, when two factions of a political party battle in court for the leadership of that party, and the court finds in favour of one faction, that decision aides a political project – whether the Judge intended it or not.

I think time has come for us all to disabuse ourselves of the notion that law and politics do not mix. They often do. To suggest otherwise is to deceive ourselves. As Chief Justice Langa himself said those many years ago, and now endorsed by the Judge President, law and politics are inherently and necessarily linked. It is naive to believe that the determination of cases, especially those engaging socio-economic  and political rights, is done shorn of political considerations. As the Judge President himself says:

“Judges should take note that every common law case is an opportunity to develop the common law and to construct social and economic relationships in one way or another consonant with the transformative agenda of the Constitution.  Every common law decision has implications that are political, moral, economic and distributive

In my view, if South Africa is to reverse (or at the very least ameliorate) the still lingering vestiges of apartheid, we need Judges who will not lose sight of the transformative mandate of the Constitution; Judges who will actively go in search of substantive justice informed by the foundational values of the Constitution: equality, human dignity, advancement of human rights and freedoms for those historically and currently marginalised or targeted for exclusion in all aspects of life in South Africa. That object cannot be fulfilled by a judiciary that is politically inert or, worse still, a judiciary that is still trapped in the politics that was dominant in 1985.

At some stage, the unpalatable but necessary task of an audit of Judges’ political persuasion will have to be embarked upon if Transformative Constitutionalism is to be realised. Until then, all we shall be doing is tinker at the edges with a system of oppression that continues to wreak havoc with the lives of the very category of persons the Constitution professes to protect and advance.

As Justice Madlanga of the Constitutional Court of South Africa has said:

“A judge’s make-up, outlook on life and indeed entire being follow her or him. Judges cannot be expected to entirely jettison all of their [subconscious] biases and perspectives about the world upon stepping into their judicial roles because meeting such a standard would be a super-human feat.”

If that is so, then what South Africa needs are not politically inert Judges but Judges whose politics aligns with the aspirations and healing of ordinary black people who still bear the scars of apartheid and continue to suffer the indignities of that system even under what is supposed to be a constitutional state founded on a constitutional ethos where everyone has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, but for whom that is merely a promise in a document.

It was President Nelson Mandela himself, addressing the then Law Society of the Transvaal in 1993, who said:

“But at the time of the worst excesses of apartheid, judges and lawyers on the whole remained silent. Judges, magistrates and prosecutors enforced apartheid laws without protest. Unwarranted sentences were called for and imposed for contravention of statutes passed to uphold apartheid.”

Will the same one day be said of contemporary South African Judges who remain silent in the face of the worst excesses of big business and the executive, putting up their judicial shield of “see no evil, speak no evil” as an excuse for not engaging publicly? Time will tell.

But the Judge President’s lecture is not just about politics and law. This just happens to be the theme that has piqued my curiosity and which, in my view, deserves closer scrutiny.

Read Full Lecture here: Transformative Social Change and the Role of the Judge in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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