Address by President Jacob Zuma, on the occasion of bidding farewell to Former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, and welcoming Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, National Assembly, Cape Town
01 November 2011
The Deputy President of the Republic,
Honourable Speaker and Deputy Speaker,
Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces,
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng,
Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke,
Former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo,
Ministers and Premiers,
The President of the Supreme Court of Appeal,
Heads of Courts and Members of the Judiciary,
Heads of Chapter 9 institutions,
I called this Joint Sitting of Parliament to enable the three arms of the State - the executive, legislature and the judiciary – to bid farewell to former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo and welcome Honourable Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
The coming together of the three arms of the State for such an event is a joyous occasion.
It is recognition of the fact that in 17 years of democracy, our institutions are stable, fully functional and working to promote and protect the rights of the people of South Africa.
We are reaffirming that we have an independent judiciary that can be trusted by our people, to be the final arbiter in disputes in our society.
We are also in essence, celebrating the Constitution of the Republic, which underscores the independence of the judiciary, and affirms the rule of law.
These are some of the gains of the freedom we obtained in 1994, after a tireless struggle waged by generations of freedom fighters.
As government we promote and underscore judicial independence and also value the cooperation and relationship we have with both the judiciary and the legislature.
It is with that background in mind that we today honour two compatriots who have served our people in the judiciary for many years.
Today we pay tribute to former Chief Justice Ngcobo for his contribution to our country’s jurisprudence and the promotion of access to justice for all, and welcome Chief Justice Mogoeng.
Former Chief Justice Ngcobo’s passion for access to justice was formed at an early stage in his career.
As an attorney at law, he handled criminal cases involving issues such as the ejection of tenants from townships; the forced removal of black communities to homelands; influx control laws; police torture and assault; wrongful detentions; labour disputes; and the eviction of black squatters.
It is not surprising therefore, that the transformation of South Africa’s judicial system and promoting access to justice served as key focal points of his short tenure as the Chief Justice of the Republic.
The former chief justice also paid specific attention to improving judicial governance as well as administrative and financial efficiency.
It was during his leadership that there developed renewed hope, that the Constitution Seventeenth Amendment Bill and the Superior Courts Bill, which have been under discussion for more than 14 years, would finally see the light of day.
The Bills are now before parliament.
The strengthening of the judicial governance arrangements are another example of the high level contribution made by former Chief Justice Ngcobo.
He has played a pivotal role in the finalisation of the Judicial Code of Conduct. I am advised that the Adhoc Committee appointed by Parliament will soon finalise the Code.
The Code will serve as a shield for ordinary people who feel aggrieved by the conduct of judges when they appear in court.
The Code will also help address the delays in finalising cases and the challenge of judgments that are reserved for unreasonably long periods of time. This deprives litigants of access to justice.
The July Access to Justice Conference hosted by former Chief Justice Ngcobo this year is still fresh in our minds. One key feature was that all three arms of the State were invited to participate.
This augured well for promoting good working relations while maintaining the independence of each arm of the State.
Secondly, the conference adopted very profound resolutions to further strengthen the administration of justice, particularly ensuring that it is accessible to all our people.
The promotion of access to justice that occurred under former Chief Justice Ngcobo’s tenure was also evidenced by the successful campaign to reduce the number of long outstanding cases on the court rolls.
We applaud him for progress made. There was a 9, 7 decrease in the number of outstanding cases from 218 660 to 197 391, from March to June 2011, and further reductions from June to July this year.
We therefore bid farewell to former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo on a high note as he has served the country in such a distinguished manner.
Distinguished guests, allow me to welcome Justice Mogoeng to this important and prestigious office in the judiciary.
Looking for a Chief Justice is not an easy task. Judges by definition have to be beyond reproach, if at all they are to be seen as fearless and impartial defenders of justice.
These sentiments informed our choice of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Chief Justice Mogoeng entered the public space under unprecedented public scrutiny, some of it intensely personal, and perhaps also unfair.
The advantage of that spirited exercise, is that South Africans have a Chief Justice that they know well, as his entire career was publicly scrutinised for two days.
His detailed response to the critics endeared him to many in the Republic, and convinced them that in his hands the highest court in the land was safe.
As all attentive South Africans should know by now, Chief Justice Mogoeng has been a judge since 1997, serving first as a judge in the North West High Court, later as the Judge President of that Court, then as a judge of the Labour Appeal Court and finally a judge of the Constitutional Court. In total, he has been a judge for more than fourteen years.
Allow me to quote what the Chief Justice said during his public interview regarding his role;
“As a judge I took the oath to be faithful to the Republic of South Africa, to uphold and protect the Constitution and the human rights entrenched in it and to administer justice to all persons alike without fear, favour or prejudice, in accordance with the Constitution and the law.
"Key to my oath of office is the obligation to uphold the foundational values of our constitutional democracy, which include human dignity, equality, freedom, transparency and accountability. As a judge of the Constitutional Court it is therefore my duty to uphold these values and if I am appointed as the Chief Justice, I will continue to uphold these values.”
Since Chief Justice Mogoeng worked closely with former Chief Justice Ngcobo, he has a good idea of the challenges that lie ahead.
The two justices also share the passion for some of the key priorities such as the transformation of the judiciary and the promotion of access to justice. They also share the strong belief in the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.
There is no doubt in our minds, that Chief Justice Mogoeng will efficiently lead the campaign to continue reducing the backlogs in the courts, so that people do not wait for years before justice is served in promoting access to justice.
In the North West, where he was Judge President, some judicial officers have embarked on working on Saturdays to reverse case backlogs in our system.
In addition, Chief Justice Mogoeng, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the North West Provincial Caseflow Management Forum, he hosted annual conferences which looked at the efficiency and effectiveness of the justice system.
At a national level he chaired the Caseflow Management Committee, which reports to the Chief Justice and the Heads of Courts.
During his interview, his views on improving the functioning of the courts also came out clearly. We are then assured continuity and added vigour when it comes to improving our court systems.
I am also personally confident that under his leadership, the Constitutional Court will also connect more closely with ordinary people, especially the poor in rural and remote areas of our country.
In paying tribute to our former and current Chief Justice, we reiterate our firm belief in the principles of the rule of law, the separation of powers and judicial independence.
Having said that, we also wish to reiterate our view that there is a need to distinguish the areas of responsibility, between the judiciary and the elected branches of the State, especially with regards to policy formulation.
Our view is that the Executive, as elected officials, has the sole discretion to decide policies for Government.
I know that the last time we raised this point, we generated a heated debate within the legal fraternity, some of whom did not see that it was actually an affirmation of the doctrine of the separation of powers.
This challenge is perhaps articulated clearly by Justice VR Krishna Lyer of India who observed that: “Legality is within the courts’ province to pronounce upon, but canons of political propriety and democratic dharma are polemic issues on which judicial silence is the golden rule.”
In our view, the principle of separation of powers means that we should discourage the encroachment of one arm of the State on the terrain of another, and there must be no bias in this regard.
We respect the powers and role conferred by our constitution on the legislature and the judiciary. At the same time, we expect the same from these very important institutions of our democratic dispensation.
The Executive must be allowed to conduct its administration and policy making work as freely as it possibly can.
The powers conferred on the courts cannot be regarded as superior to the powers resulting from a mandate given by the people in a popular vote.
We also reiterate that in order to provide support to the judiciary and free our courts to do their work, it would help if political disputes were resolved politically.
We must not get a sense that there are those who wish to co-govern the country through the courts, when they have not won the popular vote during elections.
This interferes with the independence of the judiciary.
Esteemed Members of the Judiciary,
As I conclude, allow me to re-iterate that this is a day upon which we must collectively rejoice, because even if we have conflicts, which are many in this vibrant democratic society of ours, we have agreed on the fundamental platform for their resolution.
That is through the Constitution of the Republic, as administered by our courts, at whose helm are the esteemed judges that we have in our midst today.
In congratulating former Chief Justice Ngcobo, we also recognise the contribution of all the members of the judiciary that he worked with.
On behalf of government, let me extend our fond farewell to former Chief Justice Ngcobo, and indeed a very warm welcome to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
We look forward to working with Chief Justice Mogoeng and the legal fraternity in general, to debate some of the issues we feel strongly about, and also in building and consolidating our democracy.
I thank you.