Cape Town — South Africa’s president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, has given voters an election pledge that his administration will respect the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers entrenched in the country’s Constitution.
In a text prepared for the final election rally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Sunday, Zuma was at his most defensive when dealing with the party’s attitude to the Constitution.
“Our track record speaks for itself,” he said. “We use our majority responsibly and in an inclusive manner. In 15 years that it has been in power, the ANC has never used its electoral mandate to change the Constitution.”
“It has never tried to subvert or ignore the ruling of the Constitutional Court or any other court or constitutional structure. We will always uphold, defend, promote and protect the Constitution of our country and all our democratic institutions.”
Zuma set off alarm bells both in legal and opposition circles and among some in the ANC when, in an interview with a major newspaper group, he questioned the status of South Africa’s Constitutional Court as the final arbiter of people’s rights.
Johannesburg’s Mail and Guardian reported that the court’s judges were “deeply concerned and perturbed” by his remarks but had decided against responding. However, a former chief justice, Arthur Chaskalson, responded – albeit without mentioning Zuma’s name – in an op-ed article for the newspaper group which published the interview.
"The binding force of decisions of the Constitutional Courts has always been respected by the president and other organs of state, even when decisions have gone against them," Chaskalson wrote. "This is important, for if the government does not respect the courts and obey the law, it can't expect or require others to do so."
In his election address on Sunday, Zuma said the separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary was one of the key principles of the Constitution.
The ANC reaffirmed its commitment “to constitutional governance, the independence of the judiciary, respect for due process and the rule of law,” he said.
Although the party expected the judiciary to undergo the same transformation as all institutions as the country moved away from apartheid, he continued, “when we comment on the pace of transformation in the judiciary, it is not because we want to infringe on its independence, but seek faster action.”
Zuma also called for change in South Africa’s media.
“We will continue to protect, defend and promote media freedom as we have always done,” he said. “However, we reiterate that the media, like all other institutions, must be transformed… It must strive to reflect South African society in terms of ownership, staffing, gender and content.”