Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Judge Hlophe and the transformation of the Judiciary

Cape Judge President, John Hlophe, is a perfect example of what is wrong with our discussion about the transformation of the Judiciary in South Africa. Today the Cape Times reports (subscription needed) that Judge Hlophe once again failed to answer questions put to him by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) regarding the almost R500 000 he had received from the Oasis investment group.

As I have said before, it is very difficult to understand why Judge Hlophe is still on the bench. Most other people in his position would have resigned long ago – even if only out of embarrassment.

I suspect his tenacity has a lot to do with the discourse on judicial transformation in South Africa and points to what is wrong with that discourse. When Judge Hlophe was first accused of wrongdoing, he pointed to the racism (but not the sexism) prevalent at the Cape Bar and among some of his judicial colleagues as if to say: “See, they are racist so their criticism is unfounded”.

I was (and I still am) of the view that some of the traditional lawyers and judges in the Cape have ingrained attitudes about “standards” and “competence” that emasculate new black lawyers and judges and that is really based on racist assumptions about white excellence and black incompetence. (No different from most other workplaces dominated by elite whites.) It is a subtle but devastating assault on the integrity of black lawyers and judges.

But the fact that some of the white lawyers and judges have deeply ingrained racist attitudes (without even knowing it) cannot excuse or justify wrongdoing by a black judge (or lawyer for that matter). By pointing out the racism, however, judge Hlophe made it very difficult for honest, reasonable and sensible people to criticize him because they would know that they run the risk of being tarred by the racist or anti-transformation brush.

It was a masterstroke in self-defense because it suggests that Judge Hlophe is the champion of transformation while those who think he should rather have not taken the bribe "out of pocket expenses" from Oasis can be painted as anti-transformation. Given the fact that he had championed the appointment of especially black African judges to the Cape Bench, this strategy was particularly plausible.

But this strategy is deeply problematic for reasons that go beyond the question of whether Judge Hlophe is fit to be a Judge or not. I contend that by employing this strategy Judge Hlophe displays a distinct contempt for true transformation as envisaged by the Constitution in at least two ways.

First, he discredits the very notion of transformation because he so blatantly uses it to gain a personal advantage. Like the boy who cried wolf, he trivializes the real problems of racism and resistance to transformation that is clearly present in the Cape legal system. By lashing out at others just when he is being charged with wrongdoing, he makes it easy for “the other side” to dismiss the claims and to go on as if racism and prejudice is not a problem at the Cape Bar and on the Bench.

Second, his approach completely misconstrues the nature of transformation itself. The Constitutional Court has emphasized that the Constitution requires far more than a change of the racial composition of the bench. It requires a radical transformation of the mind-set of judges and lawyers – away from the formalistic, patriarchal and hierarchical view of law, towards a more open and value based approach.

It requires judges to be attuned to issues of power as it relates to, yes, race, but also to class, and gender and sexual orientation. Replacing sexist, homophobic white men with sexist, homophobic black men does not constitute a true and complete transformation of the judiciary. How many of the new black judges appointed under Judge Hlophe embrace the values of openness, transparency and respect for difference so eloquently propagated by some judges of the Constitutional Court?

Maybe some or even most do, but this is not part of the discourse espoused by Judge Hlophe. When the ANC therefore said at their policy conference that the transformation of the judiciary should be speeded up, I hope they did not have in mind the kind of transformation represented by Judge Hlophe.

Of course more black judges and women judges should be appointed to the bench. But all the judges that are appointed should also have embraced the values of the Constitution. They should be individuals who reject the death penalty, cheer on the achievement of same-sex marriage and eagerly strike down patriarchal provisions in the common law and customary law. They should eschew narrow identity politics and should embrace the notion that diversity must be celebrated.

It is probably too late to change the values of some of the old style judges appointed before 1994, so it is exactly these newly appointed judges who have a duty to change the legal discourse. Sadly, on the available evidence, this does not always happen. Sadly, also, as long as we deal with transformation in the Judge President Hlophe way, this is not going to change.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pierre

I read an article about the transformation of the judiciary at

I find the following paragraph of the article disturbing, especially the word ‘deferential’;

“One answer is to be found in the document’s recommendations: there is a desire to guarantee a judiciary that will be as cooperative with the government as possible, and that will produce a body of law as deferential as is constitutionally permissible.”

The word ‘objective’ would be much more comforting. There is a degree of submission associated with the word ‘deference’.

The definition of ‘deference’ according to the Encarta dictionary:

1. respect: polite respect, especially putting another person’s interests first
2. submission: submission to the judgment, opinion, or wishes of another person

What are your views on the paragraph?


Anonymous said...

Pierre, won't you tag your posts ... or is there another way to find, for example, all your posts on judge hlophe, rob

Pierre de Vos said...

Rob, thanks for the suggestion. I have started tagging the posts. meanwhile you can search the Blog by typing in Hlophe in the space right at the top on the left and clicking on "search this blog". All the Hlophe posts (quite a few!) will come up.

Anonymous said...

Pierre, if you recall I asked you a while ago about the difference in law between a judge earning a retainer and another one receiving a gift in the form of shares. You gave me a very good answer, and capped it by quoting the code of conduct to which judges are bound by oath.

In the light of the Mail and Guardian article today on Judge Hlophe (and the further information revealed of when Oasis paid him a monthly sum), I wonder what your response would be if he were to say: "I received oral permission from Minister Omar in 1998 to work as a trustee or director for company X. Why would I subsequently need to ask permission from the Minister for each and every company that offered to engage my services as trustee or director".

How does a judge have to request permission from a minister?

Or let me put the question another way.

Are judges employed under the public service act (1984)?

I think all members of senior management in the public service are required to request permission in writing to undertake work outside their principal employment.

Pierre de Vos said...

Rob, there is a separate act dealing with the conditions of employment of judges. This is necessary because judges forms the third branch of government and there is a need for the separation of the branches. The legislation does not at present prescribe a specific procedure for getting permission from the Minister for outside work. I am not sure whether there are other written rules adopted by the Minister and/or the judiciary in this regard.

But I do not think judge Hlophe should get away with the kind of argument you propose because it is clear that a judge needs permission for each individual company one does work for - otherwise the whole notion of asking permission is senseless. In any case, Judge Hlophe is now in much bigger trouble not for not getting permission and then lying about it but for seemingly taking a bribe. That is about as impeachable an offense as a judge could wish to commit.