from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Independent Judiciary

August 5, 2015

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Julius Malema has been convicted of anti-white hate speech, and advocates the nationalization of white property without compensation. He has attacked the governing African National Congress (ANC) establishment, ranging from former president Thabo Mbeki to current president Jacob Zuma to possible future president Cyril Ramaphosa. He is the founder of a radical, populist political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which won 6 percent of the vote in the 2014 elections, making it the third largest party in parliament. The EFF has disrupted parliamentary sittings, notably in its protests against President Zuma’s alleged corruption with respect to his private estate, Nkandla.

A populist, Malema represents himself as the voice of the marginalized in South Africa. His lifestyle is extravagant, and how he pays for his fast cars and large farm is unclear. (He was born into poverty in Limpopo, one of the country’s poorest provinces.) It is fair to say that Malema is the South African government and establishment’s most disliked, if not hated, political figure.

Since 2012, Malema and four associates have faced charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering in conjunction with road construction projects. He has consistently stated that the charges were politically motivated by Zuma because of Malema’s strident accusations that the president is corrupt.

On August 4, the judge threw out the case against Malema. The judge said that three years was too long for an accused to await trial, and laid the blame for the delay squarely on the prosecutors. While Malema was “free to go,” the judge made no decision on the merit of the case, and has stated that the move should not be misinterpreted as an acquittal. Malema could be tried on the same charges in the future.

The South African media is focused on the political fall-out from the dismissal, seeing it generally as a defeat for President Zuma and the ANC. However, perhaps its primary significance for outside observers of South Africa is that it is yet another example of the independence of the South African judiciary. The government’s recent failure to uphold a high court order to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir raised concern that the Zuma administration may be undermining the judiciary. President Zuma and much of the South African establishment likely would have been delighted to see Malema behind bars. That the High Court dismissed the case (on the basis that keeping an accused waiting three years for a trial was unjust) is evidence that South Africa remains committed to judicial independence.

South Africa’s independent judiciary, along with its constitution and its guarantees of human rights among the most extensive in the world, is a major pillar of South African democracy.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

South Africa

Corruption

Heads of State and Government

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