Joel Avni

Joel Avni

South Africa's top judges accuse Cape Judge President John Hlophe of having threatened the integrity of the courts by meddling in cases affecting Jacob Zuma.

The 11 judges of the constitutional court under Chief Justice Pius Langa allege that Hlophe approached two of their members and improperly advised them to rule "properly" in Zuma's favour in four cases they are hearing.

The unprecedented insight into the backroom shenanigans that set the Cape's controversial top judge against the judges of the constitutional court, and each side bringing charges against the other before the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), are contained in statements Langa provided on behalf of all his colleagues to back the top judges' complaint.

The constitutional court judges view Hlophe's alleged bid to influence the outcome of Zuma's cases "in the most serious possible light".

"It constitutes a grave threat to the institution of the judiciary and accordingly to our Constitution," the statement says.

The judges feel it would be appropriate for the statements to be released "to inform the public of the basis of the complaint to avoid further harm being caused to the institution of the judiciary".

But the JSC's officials have gone to ground. Its spokesman Advocate Marumo Moerane has failed to respond to Sowetan for two days.

Our sister newspaper Business Day obtained copies of the constitutional judges' complaint against Hlophe and their response to his complaint against them.

Hlophe claims his rights were infringed when the constitutional court issued a press release saying that it was taking action against him at the JSC, the body responsible for disciplining errant judges.

The war between the legal heavyweights broke out after the politically connected Cape judge president allegedly visited two constitutional court judges in their chambers claiming he had a mandate to discuss four cases against Jacob Zuma they are deciding. He advised both to decide the cases in Zuma's favour, says Langa's statement.

"Sesithembele kinina [you are our last hope]", Hlophe told Acting Judge Chris Jafta, when he popped in uninvited to his old friend's chambers at the end of March.

The case against Zuma should be looked at "properly", the Cape judge president told the acting constitutional court judge.

Jafta considered the approach as an attempt "at interfering with the independent exercise of judicial discretion by judges of the court".

He claims to have dressed down his old colleague "in no uncertain terms" for trying to influence his decision. But he said nothing to his colleagues about the visit until he heard Hlophe was planning a similar visit to Judge Bess Nkabinde.

Though he felt the appeal was improper, he believed he had dealt with the matter decisively by rejecting the approach. He was not prepared to breach a confidence with an old friend and was not willing to lodge a formal complaint.

Nkabinde was drawing up a legal statement on one case and Jafta warned her about Hlophe's bid to influence him.

When Hlophe visited her he tried to ascertain her family background, saying he had thought she was from one of the Zulu-speaking Nkabinde families.

Hlophe told Nkabinde "he had a mandate" for his actions. She was concerned about how he knew she was drawing up the legal statement on the Zuma case and he let on that he had connections in national intelligence.

He advised Nkabinde that heads would roll under the new ANC regime and said that he was politically well connected. Hlophe felt that he had "outgrown" the Cape high court and was eyeing a seat on the constitutional court.

The Western Cape's top judge told his constitutional court colleague that he felt the prosecution had no case against Zuma and that it was therefore important to rule in the ANC president's favour.

Nkabinde says she told Hlophe that he should not interfere with the workings of the court.

All the judges of the constitutional court joined together in the complaint against Hlophe because they felt the bid to influence their two colleagues, "was calculated to have an impact not only on the individual decisions of the judges concerned, but on the capacity of the constitutional court as a whole to adjudicate in a manner that ensures its independence, impartiality, dignity, accessibility and effectiveness" as required by the Constitution.