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South Africa

Judicial system faces its own trial

Parliament to vote on investigation of Public Protector Mkhwebane accused of colluding with ex-President Zuma

Obsequies and judicial matters are set to dominate the agenda in South Africa this week. The country is debating the legacy of the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who had been a target of repression under the apartheid regime and then came under pressure again during the running clashes between the African National Congress and Inkatha in the early 1990s, orchestrated in part by the apartheid security forces. King Goodwill died on 12 March, aged 72; there will be a private funeral on 17 March and a public memorial on the following day.

President Cyril Ramaphosa described King Goodwill as a 'visionary leader' and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation lauded his 'commitment to nation-building'. Two journalists, Mondli Makhanya and Chris Barron, disagreed: Makhanya described Goodwill as a 'useful idiot in the hands of the apartheid government'; Barron recollected Goodwill's description of foreigners in South Africa as 'parasitic fleas' which coincided with a spate of xenophobic attacks and he accused the King of using the Ingoyama Trust as a 'giant piggy bank … extracting huge rents from more than 5 million rural farming people' (AC Vol 59 No 12, The tail that wags the dog).

On 16 March, parliament in Cape Town will debate launching a committee to investigate Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane who is accused of working covertly with the Jacob Zuma and Ace Magashule faction of the African National Congress against President Ramaphosa. An independent panel set up in November 2020 found prima facie evidence of misconduct and incompetence against her.

If parliament votes for the investigation into Mkhwebane, for which there is strong support from the pro-Ramaphosa ANC faction and the opposition Democratic Alliance, it will tie her up in personal legal battles, making her less useful to Magashule and Zuma, both of whom are fighting their own corruption charges.

The other judicial matters to watch are the fate of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, a Christian fundamentalist, who is facing the Judicial Conduct Committee to answer a complaint by the Africa4Palestine group that he made partisan statements about Israel. It could be settled by mediation.

More momentous is the case of Justice John Hlophe, Judge President of the Western Cape, who has just acquitted ANC MP Bongani Bongo, another close ally of Zuma and Magashule, of corruption charges. Anti-corruption groups and a former judge on the Constitutional Court, Johann Kriegler, criticised that decision and have called for Hlophe's suspension. Hlophe also faces accusations of assault against fellow judges and attempting to get the Constitutional Court to drop corruption charges against Zuma in 2008.

The fate of Mkhwebane and Hlophe will test the integrity and accountability of South Africa's judicial system but also play into the wider political battle between the pro and anti-Ramaphosa ANC factions.



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