* This column appeared on Thursday 25 June in the morning titles of the Independent group of newspaper, where I have been writing a regular feature for the last six years.
IN the middle of November 2009 I wrote my first column for this page. It was written from a car, laptop plugged in via an inverter, because there was no power in the town. As an electricity pole blazed, we suffered the municipal equivalent of an electrical short, prompting a reflection on an appeal heard that week on the appointment of city electrical engineers.
When I re-read that story in preparation for writing this, my last column for these pages, I was amused: just six years later power cuts are so routine that such a story would hardly be worth noting.
Like power outages, many of the stories from the last six years are ongoing, still without proper closure:
Will the complaint against Judge President John Hlophe to the Judicial Service Commission ever be resolved?
When will police, prosecutors and presiding officers get their handling of rape cases right so perpetrators aren’t let off completely or given shorter than appropriate sentences, merely because the proper procedures aren’t followed?
At least two stories however seem to have come to a definite conclusion over the last few days.
Less than a week ago Michael Ramodibedi, once president of Lesotho’s appeal court and chief justice of Swaziland, finally met his judicial end. He resigned from the bench in Lesotho when he couldn’t stave off an impeachment inquiry involving fraud among other claims, then he decamped full-time to Swaziland where he behaved even more abominably.
Ironically, while he set himself up as the king’s man in the Swazi courts, it was King Mswati himself who has now sacked Ramodibedi for misconduct.
Days before the king signed the order, rumours flew in Swaziland and Lesotho that the new Maseru government wanted Ramodibedi back to head the appeal court. Merely implausible a week ago, the final royal cut now surely makes it certain that Ramodibedi will have to find other ways to earn a living.
A second story settled over the last week is whether, in South Africa, someone offended by the adultery of their spouse, can sue the third party for damages.
The Constitutional Court ruled that it was inappropriate for the law to get involved in such issues. Some media headlines suggested that the court had “made adultery legal”, with a decision that undermined the institution of marriage. But the judges did neither of these things.
Instead, they stressed that the law and the courts strongly supported the institution of marriage, and had in fact removed many barriers preventing people from marrying.
However, they said, the health of such a relationship chiefly depended on the couple involved, and once they had taken the step of marriage it was not appropriate for the law to police the way the relationship developed thereafter, particularly not via a mechanism that effectively “assessed marital fidelity in terms of money”.
I can’t see the fault in this argument. Communities, families, religious advisers – these may all have some input in helping a couple when there are difficulties. But the courts can’t force them to stay together, and not through a process that could be used as a weapon to gain advantage at divorce, or as revenge, or even as blackmail.
Those who want the right to sue over adultery say all religions regard adultery as sinful. True, but ours is a secular state and the courts have no business acting as religious police in such matters.
My own concern about the outcome is rather different. The high court judge who originally heard the matter found in favour of the husband, awarding him R75 000 plus costs. But though judges of both the appeal court and the constitutional court commented on the abusive, demeaning questioning of the woman at the high court, nothing seems to have been done about the judge who sanctioned, joined in and even led that abuse.
Will someone take it up with the Judicial Service Commission? If we are serious about gender equality under the constitution the courts should lead by example. Degrading speech, and sly, sexual innuendo that debases a woman – or anyone – has no place on the bench.
Over the years many readers have given me feedback as well as useful ideas for subjects to write about. Thank you. I hope you will stay in touch as we all work to build passion for our constitution and to ensure its values are understood, shared – and vigorously defended.