INTERVIEW: Meet Ray Zondo, SA's new Deputy Chief Justice

File: Deputy Judge President Raymond Zondo - head of the commission of inquiry into state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector - has denied DA's request to have access to witnesses.

File: Deputy Judge President Raymond Zondo - head of the commission of inquiry into state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector - has denied DA's request to have access to witnesses.

Gallo Images

*Editor's note: Click on the above video to watch the full interview.

JOHANNESBURG - Deputy Chief Justice Ray Mlungisi Zondo is now South Africa’s second most powerful judge, and he may well take over as the country’s Chief Justice in the future.

But the former Labour Court and Labour Appeals Court Judge President may never have made it to the bench of South Africa’s highest court.

As one of nine children, with a father who worked on the mines and was largely absent, the young Justice Zondo says he felt torn between furthering his education, and his need to provide for his family, when he matriculated.

“People thought that if you’d reached matric, it’s time for you to go and work and help your family," he told eNCA's Karyn Maughan in an exclusive sit-down interview.

"So I thought that if after high school I went to university and didn’t go to work, in circumstances where my mother was no longer working and there was nobody earning any income in the household, the community would think I was being selfish. And I was sensitive to that. But also I was thinking that it would be selfish, because my mother had sacrificed so much to get me up to high school."

But Zondo's mother was adamant he should focus on his studies. "My mother had said to me don’t worry, you must go to university. God will make a way for us. She used to say God doesn’t close the door without opening a window.”

It was the kindness of a store owner, who agreed to give Justice Zondo’s family groceries while he was studying, that enabled the young man to take the leap and go to university.

His headmaster Pastor John Bouma paid his first year registration fee, and drove him to the station so he could catch a train to university – another act of kindness he still remembers to this day.

As a student, he began working as an articled clerk for renowned lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Victoria Mxenge, whose husband Griffiths was brutally murdered by the apartheid security forces in 1981.

“When she took me as an articled clerk, she said the firm did not have a vacancy but she took me because I was harassing her, phoning her, asking for articles. But also she said she took me because I’d spent some time at the Legal Resource Centre, which was known to be doing some labour law work. She gave me a big office and she gave me a secretary of my own, and she said I’m giving you this big office, because I want you to start a labour law department for me. That act on her part was a vote of confidence in somebody that was very inexperienced.”

Victoria Mxenge would be brutally murdered, in front of her children, by four men just days after she spoke at the funeral of the Cradock Four, killed by the apartheid police.

“She had been helping a lot of people, not just with legal work but she was also helping a lot of students, a lot of young people whenever they needed money for things so she had a very large family, extended family, if you like, so there was a huge anger," Zondo remembers. "It was something that was very difficult to handle. And the brutality that was used, was very difficult.”

It was during his years of study and work as a clerk that Justice Zondo would also meet and develop a deep friendship with Mogoeng Mogoeng - the man now serving as Chief Justice. “I think to some extent we may have been drawn to each other because of our backgrounds. I think we both discovered that both of us were from very poor families. It’s been a very constructive friendship. It’s a friendship where he’s able to tell me his views. He’s able to tell me: No you are wrong!" Zondo laughs. "And I’m equally able to say: no I don’t agree with you."

The friendship between the two justices survived through their struggles as black legal professionals starting their careers during apartheid. But it also endured through the initial backlash at Mogoeng’s appointment as Chief Justice where he was widely maligned as being nothing more than a lap dog of President Jacob Zuma.

“I supported him mainly by speaking to him on the phone... and he reminds from time how much those phone calls meant, because at that time, there weren’t too many people who were supportive of him. I don’t know how many people would have had the strength to handle what he went through. I think a lot of people would at some stage have said: no, I’m withdrawing. But he was very strong and he went ahead, and of course many people are very happy that he went ahead now.”

Those who attacked the Chief Justice’s integrity have, arguably, been forced to eat their words. But the judiciary he leads is now facing a different attack – and confronting accusations that the bench is not respecting the power that President Zuma and his government have to run their own affairs, with so-called interference from the courts and contravention of the separation of powers. 

Some judges have even been accused of being corrupt or agents for opposition parties.

“Sometimes people will make accusations against judges on the basis of a judgment that they have not even read. So you would expect, when it comes to leaders, that before they could make any accusation against the judiciary, which is simply there to do its job, that at least they would bother to apply their minds and read the relevant material, and be able to say: in this case, we think this is what happened, and also raise it properly.

"It’s quite unacceptable where very wild and generalised accusations are made, particularly when they are made by leaders, who have a following, because then a lot of people may think that those accusations are justified (and) are correct. We as the judiciary have never said that we are immune from criticism, that we should never be criticised, we don’t say that. We just say that if we are to be criticised that it should be done properly, and be properly motivated.”

He stresses that the courts are required to adjudicate on all matters that can be resolved within the law, no matter how politically sensitive they may be.

“Well, the truth of the matter is that ideally the other arms of the state should be able to resolve a lot of matters that arise within their domain, and we know that sometimes we look at a case that comes before the courts and say but this could have been resolved by that arm of the state, but was not resolved.”

And that, the Deputy Chief Justice says, is what courts must continue to do – because that is what the Constitution requires of them.