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May Chief Justice Zondo be a placeholder for the next Chief Justice, Mandisa Maya

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Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

In my opinion piece two days ago I pondered on the question of why the decision on appointing the next Chief Justice was taking so long. I also noted that experience in India taught us that ‘judicial appointments are a cautionary tale’.

President Ramaphosa has now spoken and has released a statement that Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has been appointed in accordance with Section 174(3) of the Constitution as the next Chief Justice, with effect from 1 April 2022

See: Judicial Appointments in India: From Pillar to Post

The decision is bitter-sweet in many respects. Sweet in that finally the period of uncertainty has been closed and there is no longer excitement over who the Chief Justice will be. Bitter on the other hand, because whether by design or coincidentally, the President’s decision comes on the day when the world is celebrating the first “International Day of Women Judges”, and South Africa was hoping for its first female Chief Justice in the form of Supreme Court of Appeal President Mandisa Maya.

For those not aware, on 28 April 2021 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 10 March of each year as the International Day of Women Judges. The proclamation called upon Member States to observe the day “in order to promote the full and equal participation of women at all levels of the judiciary”.

Announcing the inception of the day, the then International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) President Vanessa Ruiz reportedly “lauded the UN’s adoption of the International Day of Women Judges resolution as a recognition by the highest international body of nations of the importance of women judges to implementation of the rule of law and fair and equal justice.”

One of the tweets linked to the International Association of Women Judges relating to the celebration of the day on 10 March 2022 proclaimed that “today we celebrate the accomplishments of women judges, for their immense work, effort and passion for equal justice throughout the world. 👩🏾‍⚖️👩🏼‍⚖️👩🏻‍⚖️👩🏽‍⚖️. Throughout the day, let’s feel more together than ever…”

One publication lauded the celebration in the following positive and hopeful manner: “The entry of more women in judicial institutions can help in proving that institutions are committed to the principles of peace and equality. The day also aims to ensure that, with the active participation of women, courts are able to represent all citizens and their concerns.  Combating gender disparity in the judicial services will also help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.”

The announcement of a male Chief Justice in South Africa on a day the focus should have been on the plight of female judges probably stung many — at least female judges.

You can imagine a conference room of female judges meeting to celebrate the day and to learn, in solidarity with one another’s lived experiences, the news that South Africa is not to have a female Chief Justice yet. At least the symbolism of the lack of women leaders at the Constitutional Court is slowly breaking down, with Maya identified for the position of Deputy Chief Justice.

“With Justice Zondo assuming the position of Chief Justice, the position of Deputy Chief Justice will become vacant. President Ramaphosa has accordingly indicated his intention, once the new Chief Justice assumes office, to nominate Justice Mandisa Maya for the position of Deputy Chief Justice. This nomination will be subject to the process outlined in Section 174(3) of the Constitution,” read a statement by the Presidency on Thursday, 10 March 2022.

In the words muttered by advocate Paul Hoffman SC in our bilateral discussions earlier in the day before the President’s decision was made — hoping he does not mind — such may be deemed to be “promoting Maya to the CC at the first opportunity so that she can be better prepared to be the successful first woman CJ after Zondo or Madlanga retire.” One hopes that equity and transformation on the Constitutional Court bench will remain abysmal for a short period. 

In conclusion, an appreciation and welcome of the appointment of Justice Zondo as Chief Justice are in order. (And perhaps also wishing JP Maya well for the position of Deputy Chief Justice).

Zondo has a huge responsibility on his broad shoulders to provide leadership, stability and transformation in the judiciary, and the justice system in general.

To borrow from the Presidency’s statement, “The position of Chief Justice carries a great responsibility in our democracy. As the head of the judiciary, the Chief Justice is a guardian of our Constitution and the laws adopted by the freely elected representatives of the people. The Chief Justice stands as the champion of the rights of all South Africans and bears responsibility for ensuring equal access to justice…” DM

 

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