Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has accused Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu of grievously insulting the judiciary with an article labelling judges as “mentally colonised Africans” and urged her to reflect and withdraw her remarks.
Zondo told a media briefing on Wednesday 12 January that, in his estimation, the article by the veteran minister went beyond criticism or an attack and constituted the worst insult hurled at the institution in memory.
“For me, it is difficult to think of any occasion in the past when a senior member of both parliament and the executive insulted the judiciary in the way in which Ms Sisulu has. My recollection is that this is probably the worst insult that has been levelled against the judiciary.
“This is not just criticism, it is an insult.”
He noted that the judiciary did not always respond to the many attacks it has endured in recent years, saying that to do so would leave judges little time to do their work.
Zondo said he believed it was important that “we go on record” in instances where someone crossed a line, adding: “In this case I certainly think Ms Sisulu has crossed a line.
“We want to make it clear that this is unacceptable what she has done. We hope that she can reflect on what she has done and withdraw. At this stage we hope that she would have the decency to withdraw the insult that she has hurled at the African judges,” he said.
Responding to questions, Zondo said he had not met with Sisulu and had no plan at this stage of doing so, noting that she did not engage with the judiciary before she published the article in several major newspapers in the past week.
“She did not engage with the judiciary before she wrote the article, so we are responding to what she has said. We find it completely unacceptable and there is no plan to engage with her unless she wishes to engage with us and maybe explain herself or withdraw and apologise.”
He said he had consulted with colleagues in the judiciary before addressing the matter but dismissed suggestions that he should have raised the matter with President Cyril Ramaphosa rather than speak to it directly, adding: “The judiciary is independent.”
Zondo said the views Sisulu expressed carried the risk of undermining trust in the courts, and the rule of law itself.
“The courts are very fundamental to our constitutional democracy, for many reasons. One of which is that the citizens and all people must know that when there are disputes, whether it is disputes among citizens or disputes between citizens and government, they take those disputes to the courts and the courts would resolve them.
“For people to have confidence in the courts, they need to have confidence in the judiciary, that the judiciary will resolve their disputes in accordance with the Constitution and the law. So when an attack such as this, or insult such as this that Ms Sisulu has hurled on the judiciary is made, the question would arise: Why should people bring their disputes to judges who fit this description that she gives?
“I don’t know the answer she would give if someone approached her and said: ‘Ms Sisulu, what do you say to people if they approach you as a member of parliament and a senior member of cabinet and say, should we take our disputes to courts in the light of what you have said about the judges?’”
He added that it was difficult for him to imagine that she would answer in the affirmative.
“And if she can’t say that, what is she going to say? People will then say, well, we will resolve these disputes through violence.”
He asked if it was tenable for a member of the executive to make the utterances she did despite the fact that the position she held obliged her to encourage citizens to trust the justice system and not resort to violence.
“She is creating a situation where some sectors of society may well say, we are not taking our disputes to the courts, and in fact they might have less respect for courts and their orders because she says these black judges are basically puppets of their masters.
“She has questioned the rule of law. As a member of parliament, as a member of the executive, Ms Sisulu has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, to respect it and to protect it. And part of our Constitution is the rule of law.”
He said it was not clear whether she was still prepared to uphold the Constitution.
What Sisulu wrote
“The most dangerous African today is the mentally colonised African,” Sisulu wrote. “When you put them in leadership positions or as interpreters of the law, they are worse than your oppressor. They have no African or pan-African inspired ideological grounding. Some are confused by foreign belief systems.”
She then used the term “house negroes” before going on to say: “When it comes to crucial economic issues and property matters, the same African cosies up with their elitist colleagues to sing from the same hymn book, spouting the Roman Dutch law of property.
“But where is the indigenous law? It has been reduced to a footnote in your law schools.”
The spokesman for Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, Chrispin Phiri, has strongly criticised Sisulu’s comments in a reply written in his personal capacity as an ANC member.
Sisulu has emerged as a likely candidate to run against Ramaphosa when he seeks a second term as ANC leader at the party’s next elective conference in December.
Zondo made plain that he was not speaking to any political undercurrent in her article but confining his condemnation to her attack on the bench.
Asked whether his remarks risked undermining his chances of becoming the next chief justice, he said this was irrelevant.
“As acting chief justice I have certain responsibilities and those responsibilities must be carried out. If carrying those responsibilities out means that I am reducing my chances of being appointed chief justice, that’s fine.”