The metaphorical ink was barely dry on the damning judgments handed down on Friday March 17 – the Constitutional Court flayed the SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini over the social grant payment debacle, and the North Gauteng High Court found the appointment of Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza to be unlawful and invalid – when 15 computers containing sensitive information about staff in the judicial system were stolen from the personnel department in the office of the Chief Justice.
Speculation was rife that this was little more than a blatant attempt to intimidate the judiciary, following the embarrassment of the executive by the two Friday judgments.
In short order, the SAPS announced that three suspects had been identified, and that arrests were imminent. The media was lambasted for jumping to conclusions that elements of the state security apparatus were involved in the robbery, or suggesting that the Jacob Zuma faction in the ANC was behind it.
Two arrests followed and the accused eventually appeared in court on charges of possession of false ID documents and illegal possession of firearms, no mention of housebreaking or robbery charges.
A third suspect – the alleged mastermind behind the robbery and brother of one of the other accused – eventually handed himself over to the SAPS, but prior to his incarceration, told the media “I am willing to work with police in the investigation, but it would be hard as I don’t know anything about it.”
In a subsequent press conference, acting police commissioner Kgomosto Pahlane, castigated the media and the public in general for accusing the SAPS for collusion in the robbery, noting that the allegations were “hurtful” to SAPS members who are simply trying to do their jobs.
Deputy Minister of Justice, John Jeffery had also lost no time in lambasting civil society groups and opposition party members who had weighed in on the debate, for jumping to conclusions about who was behind the robbery, but when the facts about the alleged thieves emerged, his protestations rang hollow.
The personal information of 250 judges and over 1 800 judicial officials contained on the stolen computers “is not for public consumption and we are not at liberty to disclose any details pertaining thereto,” according to a press release by the Justice Department.
How on earth is it possible to arrive at any conclusion other than that this is a blatant attack on the judiciary, effectively saying, “we know who you are and where you are?”
Considering the extent to which the executive pays lip service to judicial rulings and judgments, so many of which have been deeply embarrassing in the last few years – reinstatement of 783 charges against Jacob Zuma, the Nkandla judgment, forcing the release of the Public Protector’s State Capture report, the Al-Bashir judgement, the Sassa judgment and the Berning Ntlemeza judgment – is it any wonder that the public at large, opposition parties, and civil society organisations immediately apportion guilt to elements in the administration sympathetic to Jacob Zuma?
The judiciary is now seen to be the last bastion of our tottering democracy, the institution to which we now turn to ensure that our much vaunted constitution is upheld, that the rule of law prevails, and that the pillaging of the public purse is stopped.
Whereas virtually every other state institution which exists to uphold the constitution, including the National Assembly, is emasculated and unable or unwilling to rise to the challenge, the judiciary has fiercely maintained its independence, and managed to keep the barbarians at the gate.
If this attack on the last bastion of our democracy and the rule of law is allowed to succeed, and the judiciary is bludgeoned into submission, we would be well advised to take the advice of a BBC journalist who left the country to return to England in the darkest days of apartheid during the 1980s: “Would the last person to leave, please turn off the lights.”