South Africa: Raymond Zondo’s long journey to Chief Justice

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Monday, 14 March 2022 14:58

Raymond Zondo in Johannesburg, South Africa, February 15, 2021.
Raymond Zondo in Johannesburg, South Africa, February 15, 2021. Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

By choosing acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo to preside over the Constitutional Court, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has incurred the wrath of part of the opposition as well as the Zuma clan.

“I am not pro- or anti-anyone,” Raymond Zondo told the panel interrogating him about the post as president of the Constitutional Court. His critics say the judge, who turns 62 in May and has spent 25 of those years serving the judiciary, is a political animal in Ramaphosa’s pocket. Such suspicions did not dissuade the head of state from nominating Zondo, against the advice of an advisory committee.

After interviewing four candidates in February, the Judicial Service Commission and party leaders in the National Assembly recommended the nomination of Mandisa Maya, the current president of the Supreme Court of Appeal. But Ramaphosa had zero obligation to follow their advice. Maya thus becomes deputy president of the Constitutional Court, replacing Zondo, who ascends the final step to become president, ten years after joining the court. He had already been serving as acting president since the post became vacant last October.

Privileged access

Raymond Zondo is not simply a judge – he is a public figure. For the past four years, he has been heading the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector, better known as the Zondo Commission.

This body is responsible for shedding light on the corruption that plagued the South African state under President Jacob Zuma, from 2009 to 2018. The televised broadcasts of the commission’s hearings turned Raymond Zondo into a small-screen celebrity. His face, marked by slender rectangular glasses, dominated the newspapers for three years. Everyone now recognises the timbre of his voice, a murmur with deep bass tones.

The commission introduced Zondo to the world of public opinion while opening the doors of the presidential palace to him. On occasion, he informed Ramaphosa directly on the progress of the investigations. This privileged access did not fail to escape the attention of Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. “When the president himself is involved, this can be seen as a way of compromising the independence of the commission,” he said. Nothing incriminating there, says Zondo, who explains that since the presidency launched the commission, it is only natural that he report his findings back to the head of state.

It was during these meetings with Ramaphosa that Zondo asked the president to come and testify before his committee. The head of state was called in his capacity as former deputy president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) but also because he was then Jacob Zuma’s number two.

The hearings were conducted gently by the judges, as the president himself was never in trouble. In a March 10 statement, the EFF said that Zondo had been “rewarded for treating Ramaphosa with kid gloves at the Commission.” Noting that neither the president nor his son are mentioned in the first three Zondo commission reports, the radical party’s statement concluded: “The judiciary has been stripped of its independence, integrity and objectivity.”

‘A strong signal’

If Zondo is being rewarded, News24’s judicial columnist Karyn Maughan believes, to the contrary, that it is for his tireless work in exposing the mechanics of corruption within the ruling party. “Not naming him would be tantamount to telling judges investigating corruption within the ANC and the state that they risk jeopardising their careers,” Maughan says.  “By choosing him, Ramaphosa is sending a strong signal about the role of the judiciary as a tool in the fight against corruption. He is also showing that he is not intimidated by criticism.”

The last few months have been marked by repeated attacks on the judicial system. A climate of mistrust that Raymond Zondo evoked during his hearing. “All sorts of threats have been made against me and my family in relation to my work at the commission, but the state has offered its protection,” said the father of eight. Even worse, he recalled, the whole profession was targeted during the July 2021 riots.

Indeed, Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment triggered a week-long wave of looting in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. The Constitutional Court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court after a referral from the Zondo Commission. Zondo had sought a two-year sentence for Zuma, who refused to testify. Supporters of the former president saw this move as proof of an alliance of the judicial system against their leader.

Zuma vs Zondo

The year 2021 was marked by the confrontation between the two Zs. Zuma has repeatedly demanded that Zondo withdraw from the anti-corruption inquiry commission as a sine qua non (essential condition) of his participation. He has often accused Zondo of bias against him. The former president also claimed that he and Zondo were friends for thirty years, saying their family and professional ties disqualified Zondo from chairing the anti-corruption commission.

Family ties? The judge was forced to admit that he had fathered a child with a sister of one of Jacob Zuma’s ex-wives. Not exactly enough to make them family, Zondo insisted. While the judge acknowledged having maintained a cordial relationship with Zuma, he denied the idea of a friendship.

Either way, it would be very difficult for the pair to patch things up today. Zondo’s appointment as Chief Justice was met with sarcasm from the Zuma clan. “Zondo as Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court? The jokes keep writing themselves,” Thuthukile Zuma, one of the former president’s daughters, said on Twitter. She can take heart in the fact that Zondo won’t be holding the gavel for too long. He should be retiring in two and a half years.

If Ramaphosa were to be re-elected as South Africa’s leader in 2024, Zondo’s successor would have to be found. Mandisa Maya would then be in a good position. “By choosing her as Zondo’s deputy, Ramaphosa is showing that he wants to put her on the right track,” says Karyn Maughan.

Mandisa Maya would become the first woman to chair the Constitutional Court. And no one seems opposed to that.

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