SA Democracy under threat, say

SA Democracy under threat, says Judge Masipa

If the State did not lead by example in respecting court rulings there was cause to fear for the future, a leading South African judge said in London last night.

SA Democracy under threat, say

Judge Thokozile Masipa was answering questions following a lecture at a leading London law firm entitled: The Independence of the Judiciary in South Africa.

Conceding that court rulings were being ignored by the state, Judge Masipa said that the most serious case was the decision by the government to allow Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to leave the country despite a High Court ruling to prevent him from doing so.

“The State should be leading by example….If it does not you really fear for the future….then you are really heading for trouble,” she said.

“Then ordinary people will start disobeying the law.”

A full bench of the High Court has asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate criminal charges against officials who facilitated al-Bashir’s departure. Government has lodged an appeal against the High Court ruling.

Judge Masipa, who has the highest international profile of any South African judge following the trial of Oscar Pistorius, said she was saddened by the impression in some political circles that the courts in South Africa counted for nothing.

“It is very sad and an indictment but I am not surprised (that this view is being expressed),” Judge Masipa said.

The Judge devoted her hour-long lecture to the importance of the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in a constitutional democracy.

She said it was essential that judges were beyond reproach and did not socialise with prosecutors, the police or representatives of the accused.

She said it was essential that judges “forget their past” when they sat on the bench.

“You have to forget where you come from when you are on the bench,” she said. “If not I would find every white person guilty.”

Judge Masipa said that diversity of the judiciary to reflect society was important and transformation was too slow.

“But when you are made a judge you are not put there because you are black or white.

“We are not there to look after blacks. We are there to look after the public who are both black and white.”

She said it was her view that most South Africans did not understand the importance of the independence of the judiciary.

She said that public opinion, pressure groups and commercial interests should play no role in the decisions of the court.

Decisions should be made without fear or favour, she said.

Judge Masipa said that the life of a judge was often lonely and there was little role for socialising.

On introducing Judge Masipa, the British Judge Lady Justice Arden said that Judge Masipa came from an “unconventional background” as a former journalist who had reported on crime and been a social worker.

She had grown up in Soweto and shown great determination and perseverance to study law and become a judge.

She was an excellent example of the need to have judges coming from diverse backgrounds, a debate which was very much alive in Britain.

The lecture was jointly sponsored by Action Southern Africa (ACTSA), successor of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Human Rights Law Association of Britain and hosted by Hogan Lovells Business and Human Rights practice.

Click here for the full Q and A with Judge Masipa
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