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South Africa’s Zuma makes controversial chief justice choice

Published on 16/08/2011

South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday announced a controversial nomination for the post of chief justice after a legal scuffle forced the incumbent to withdraw from an extended term.

Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, 50, was named to replace Sandile Ngcobo who announced last month that he would not stay in office as requested by Zuma after the extension was challenged in court. He retired Sunday.

Political parties and the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) have until August 24 to comment on Zuma’s choice of Mogoeng as preferred candidate over more experienced peers serving in the country’s highest court.

“He has demonstrated his expertise and keen interest in the transformation of the judiciary and the promotion of access to justice for all, by being part of, and also leading programmes and activities designed to promote court efficiency and transformation,” said Zuma in a statement.

But constitutional expert and University of the Western Cape law professor Pierre de Vos described the announcement as “surprising and disappointing” and said Mogoeng was one of the less suitable candidates to the post.

“The nomination, if confirmed, will mean that for the next ten years the South African judiciary will be led by a deeply conservative jurist,” De Vos posted on his blog Constitutionally Speaking.

“This could potentially have consequences for the implementation of the transformative vision embodied in the South African Constitution.”

The weekly Mail&Guardian earlier this month in a rundown of possible candidates said Mogoeng was “a dark horse because he has less legal experience than his peers.”

But the judge was seen as “a better political choice for the ANC,” the ruling African National Congress, it said.

An ordained pastor, Mogoeng was appointed to the Constitutional Court in 2009 after serving as president of the North West High Court.

Zuma had asked Ngcobo to stay in office for five more years after his retirement.

But the Harvard-educated judge overturned his earlier acceptance, saying he wanted to protect the integrity of the chief justice office and the judiciary after legal rights groups challenged the extension in the Constitutional Court, arguing Zuma had overreached his powers.