South Africa’s Chief Justice Declines Offer to Extend Tenure

South African Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo plans to step down next month, ending a legal wrangle over the legality of President Jacob Zuma’s offer to extend his tenure.

“On Aug. 15, there will be a new chief justice in South Africa,” Justice Minister Jeff Radebe told reporters today in the capital, Pretoria. Ngcobo decided to step aside to protect the integrity of the justice system, and Zuma has begun the process of appointing a replacement, Radebe 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.

Zuma told lawmakers on June 15 that the Judges’ Remuneration and Conditions of Employment Act, adopted 10 years ago, authorized him to enable the chief justice to continue serving beyond the 12-year term and that the law’s constitutionality had never been challenged.

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. A verdict has yet to be delivered.

‘Detracts From Integrity’

“Justice Ngcobo said he found it undesirable for a chief justice to be a party in litigation involving the question of whether or not he or she should continue to hold office, as this detracts from the integrity of the office,” Radebe said.

The ruling African National Congress agreed last month to proposals made by the opposition Democratic Alliance to pass a law to validate the extension of Ngcobo’s term. While the legislation is now being processed, the parliamentary schedule doesn’t allow it to be adopted before he was due to step down.

“It was intolerable to put the chief justice in this position by extending his term by presidential discretion,” Dene Smuts, a Democratic Alliance lawmaker, said in an e-mailed statement. “I have been prompting action since late last year to ensure the retention of the chief justice. We have lost someone who has the administrative, policy-making and leadership skills we need. This grave loss is made all the worse by the fact that it could have been prevented, had the appropriate action been taken in time.”

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