Connecting the Dots: Zak Yacoob’s Appointment to the Constitutional Court Remains Alarming

By: Edmond Phiri

The judiciary, by design, stands as a pillar of impartiality in a democracy mandated by the Constitution to adjudicate without bias, fear, favour, or prejudice.

The foundational principle, however, is tested when someone like retired judge Zak Yacoob again serves in the judiciary, especially given their pronounced political stances.

The question that looms large is whether a judge, known for potent political affiliations and pronounced factional allegiances, can truly uphold this sacred principle of impartiality. I think not!

The controversy surrounding Yacoob’s role at the Constitutional Court surfaced two weeks after a Sunday World report, prompting the Office of the Chief Justice to clarify his duties.

Initially shrouded in secrecy, it was revealed that Yacoob’s appointment was to assist in reviewing appeal cases before the Court, a decision confirmed by the Chief Justice’s office following inquiries by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) and media outlets.

In the explanation, the Office of Chief Justice outlined Yacoob’s role as providing “only a support service” to the Court’s justices, aiming to alleviate the “huge workload” resultant from the Court’s expanded jurisdiction.

This support entails Yacoob drafting memorandums for new applications, which are then reviewed and possibly adopted or modified by the justices assigned to those cases.

Despite these clarifications, questions linger regarding the transparency and propriety of assigning such roles to retired justices when law clerks and researchers traditionally fulfil such roles.

Further complicating Yacoob’s appointment are his factional political affiliation and public statements. His long-standing relationship with Minister Pravin Gordhan and vociferous participation in political movements, notably the #SaveSA campaign and his outspoken criticism of former President Jacob Zuma, paint a picture of a judge deeply entangled in political machinations.

Yacoob’s activism raises concerns about his ability to remain unbiased in his recently revealed judicial advisory role. The vigorous public defence of Gordhan during the 2017 SARS Rogue Unit saga and his abrasive stance on the ANC’s factional battles reflect a judge who has steered far beyond the judiciary’s neutral confines into the turbulent waters of party politics.

In May 2021, the Sunday Independent report exposed Yacoob’s deep entanglement in the ANC’s internal conflicts. He was reported to have implored ANC stalwart Mathews Phosa to retract a legal opinion on an ANC matter. Phosa recounted, “This man phoned me unexpectedly, hurling insults and demanding I retract what he termed a ‘s*** opinion’ on the ANC’s step-aside rule.”

The step-aside rule, an ANC mechanism designed to sideline ANC leaders under criminal or corruption allegations, became a focal point of contention. Yacoob’s call to “retract the opinion” exposes his deep involvement in ANC’s factional battles. The incident raises questions about the appropriateness of a retired Constitutional Court judge’s deep-seated involvement in party politics.

Yacoob’s political commentary further amplifies the depth of his involvement in the nation’s political discourse. 2017, during the #SaveSA campaigns, he notably announced, “If Zuma resigns tomorrow, we have not won our struggle. We have had a small victory and nothing more. Our first objective, of course, is that Zuma must fall, but our president is not the solitary issue at hand… it follows that there is dirt on the hands of the majority of the NEC of the African National Congress.”

The statement again reveals Yacoob’s involvement in the intraparty politics of the ANC, suggesting that more than removing a single figurehead would be necessary to cleanse the party of its entrenched challenges. This is not a judge speaking, but a politician.

The Sunday Independent’s report highlighted a senior counsel’s allegation, preferring anonymity, that Yacoob leveraged his close relations with Minister Pravin Gordhan to exert influence and, at times, disparage others. The source depicted Yacoob as a figure emboldened by political alliances, perceiving himself as beyond reproach due to these connections.

The crux of the matter lies in the responsibilities entrusted to Yacoob by Chief Justice Zondo. Suppose Yacoob is to review appeals submitted to the Constitutional Court. Will he be objective in handling cases involving individuals he may personally disagree with or those not aligned with Gordhan? The recent rejection of the Zuma appeal raises eyebrows over Yacoob’s decision.

The judiciary has not been immune to criticism over its members’ public expressions of personal views. A notable instance is the Judicial Conduct Committee’s (JCC) action against former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

In March 2021, the JCC, led by Mojapelo, found Mogoeng guilty of contravening South African policy on Israel and of judicial misconduct for leveraging his position to further personal and external interests.

This case illustrates the fine line judicial figures must navigate between personal expression and the ethical demands of their roles, highlighting the ongoing challenge of ensuring that the judiciary remains a bastion of impartiality and integrity.

The importance of Yacoob’s role—whether as an impartial advisor or a politically influenced figure—becomes crucial in evaluating the integrity of the Constitutional Court’s appointment processes.

His past statements and actions prompt a reassessment of how retired justices should engage with the judiciary, especially in advisory capacities that could influence the Court’s decision-making.

As the judiciary remains the guardian of fairness and justice, ensuring that it remains free from perceived or actual biases is imperative.

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