South Africa’s Top Court Rules Zuma Decision on Judge Unconstitutional

South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that President Jacob Zuma’s attempt to extend the tenure of the country’s chief justice was unconstitutional.

Judges at the Johannesburg-based court, South Africa’s top judicial organ, all agreed that a decade-old law that entitled the president to extend the term of Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo was in itself unlawful, according to a copy of today’s ruling posted on its Website. As the law had never been used before, its powers had never been challenged.

“Parliament alone had the power to extend a Constitutional Court judge’s term of office,” the ruling said.

Ngcobo was appointed to the Constitutional Court in 1999 after serving for three years on the Supreme Court, and was named chief justice in August 2009, when Pius Langa retired from the post. The Constitution states that judges on the country’s highest court may serve a non-renewable term of 12 years, unless Parliament passes a law to extend their tenure.

The presidency yesterday said that the Judge’s Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act authorized Zuma to extend the chief justice’s tenure. While the presidency accepts and respects the judgment, it maintained that “the law was valid until” today, spokesman Mac Maharaj said in an e-mailed statement.

Ngcobo decided to step aside to protect the integrity of the justice system, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said on July 27. His replacement will be announced before Aug. 15, he said.

The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, Freedom Under Law, the Justice Alliance of South Africa and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of Zuma’s offer to extend Ngcobo’s tenure.

To contact the reporter on this story: Franz Wild in Johannesburg at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Philip Sanders at

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