Mogoeng Mogoeng represents the best of our judicial fraternity. As a person, he embodies the collective moral compass of a nation, and the stature and personification of the final – usually solitary – voice of reason. When all are losing their heads, this modest citizen turned colossus was charged to keep his, and in that mammoth task, he has excelled.
The chief justice has with equal grace and vigour stood against his Executive and Parliamentary counterparts when the constitution was under threat, fought to protect the integrity of the continental judicial body the CCJA, and then sought to provide accountability from the national one by initiating a Judiciary Annual Report. These few examples of the man’s moral fortitude shine like beacons of hope of what South African society can become.
The last decade in South Africa’s history can be described as one of the most politically turbulent since the formative years of our young democracy. Presidential recalls, multiple votes of no confidence, and an imploding ruling party flung the executive into a tailspin. This chaos was met with a legislature that blindly advocated for party loyalty over reason, so the proverbial buck demanded to be met with a judiciary resolute under unspeakable pressures. A judiciary that was led by a demure figure that was touted as a Zuma sympathiser upon his appointment, by opposition squawkers. Oh, how they were mistaken.
During this tumultuous period the courts became the enforcer of individual rights meant to be upheld by public office bearers. These theatres of dispute settled matters of the outlandish vs rationale as in the case of the president’s claim that the renovations to his private residence worth a quarter of a billion – yes, with a “b” – were justified.
When the Public Protector’s report on this matter went to the President, the Ministry of Public Works, and Parliament, it was side-lined as mere recommendations. But the Constitutional Court led by Mogoeng Mogoeng intervened, at the DA and EFF’s behest, and ruled that the president reimburse the National Treasury for the non-essential upgrades to his home. The court further reiterated that the Public Protector’s remedial action was legal and binding and that the President’s failure to comply with the PP’s order was a failure to “uphold, defend, and respect” the constitution of which he swore an oath.
The National Assembly was also reprimanded for their part in the fiasco as the court declared that their conduct was not consistent with their constitutional obligations. So, in this fashion, when two arms of the three-armed state failed to uphold the constitution, the judiciary under Mogoeng Mogoeng prevailed and returned a semblance of confidence to the public machinery.
During the Conference of Constitutional Jurisdictions of Africa (CCJA) General Assembly in Cape Town from in April 2017 Mogoeng Mogoeng was elected President for a two-year term by his continental peers. In this capacity he appeared at the AU Summit in January 2018 to advocate for a voice for the CCJA he represents to be heard as an operational equal in the matters of African interest as in the case with the AU Summit that acts as an Executive arm, and the Pan-African Parliament that acts as the Legislative arm. He spoke frankly about the role of judges in the international and national spheres in that democratic rule requires a free judiciary as a prerequisite for success. He further alluded to the violence that judges are threatened with when their judgements, or even involvement, would spell discomfort for the circles of power, and that this should not be tolerated.
Most recently, in November 2018, Mogoeng Mogoeng presented the inaugural Judicial Annual Report. This is the first of its kind in the history of the South African justice system. This report provides feedback on the budgets, caseloads, and performance of courts per case. This all culminates in a new form of accountability for our courts and when compared with the other branches of government as per the CJ’s suggestion, one finds that quite a lot has been done with not very much. Both the initiative and the insight that emerged from it, point to Mogoeng Mogoeng as a prolific leader and judge to be able to not only prescribe good governance to others but to perform it himself in his own house.
After being rewarded with the coveted South African of the year honour in 2017 and being appointed as Chancellor of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in the same year, he has enjoyed sustained confidence from the people of South Africa. He has shown that he, in this dire time, will be unshaken in his duties no matter the political pressure to do otherwise.
David Monyae is a senior political analyst at the University of Johannesburg.