The burglary at the offices of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, in which thieves made off with 15 computers containing sensitive information on Constitutional Court judges and officials, is a brazen assault on the independence of the country’s judiciary and a move meant to intimidate and sow fear among the judges.
The Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution (Casac) said the incident was indicative of a repressive state in which the rule of law was deliberately trampled upon.
Mogoeng’s spokesperson, Nathi Mncube, said the theft of the computers constituted a major setback for the administration of justice. The computers were located in an office used by the human resources and facilities units.
Upon hearing the news, Mogoeng said the break-in must be viewed in a very serious light and urged the police to do everything in their power to ensure that the culprits were brought to book.
Following the incident in the early hours of Saturday morning, the SA Police Service hastily set up a task team to deal with the matter. Additional security was also assigned to judges.
Acting police national commissioner Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane announced that a multidisciplinary team led by Gauteng deputy provincial commissioner of crime detection, Major-General Mary Motsepe, had been appointed to speedily probe the processing of the crime scene.
“The South African Police Service deems the break-in at the offices of the chief justice as an attack on the judicial system and views this in a serious light,” Phahlane said.
Casac executive secretary Lawson Naidoo described the burglary as “deeply disturbing”.
“This incident may mark a crucial turning point in our constitutional democracy. It is a potential Watergate moment, in which the independence of the judiciary is brazenly challenged,” he said.
Naidoo said the fact that the burglary took place after the government lost several cases in courts last week “inevitably raises suspicions about political motives for the burglary”.
He cited the government’s notice of intent to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, which was declared invalid. Another was the North Gauteng High Court’s invalidation of the appointment of Hawks’ head Berning Ntlemeza, while the Constitutional Court delivered a scathing attack on South African Social Security Agency and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini over the grants debacle.
Naidoo said the incident could not simply be treated as another routine crime.
“It has the hallmarks of being a carefully orchestrated operation that is usually associated with a repressive state, in which the rule of law is deliberately trampled upon,” he said.
He said the timing of the incident was intended to intimidate and sow fear among judges. Casac called for thorough and speedy investigation that was free from political interference.
The Right2Know Campaign spokesperson, Dale McKinley, said the timing of the burglary was highly suspect after the grants judgment and the ruling on Ntlemeza.
“We should be worried indeed; serious questions ought to be raised,” McKinley said.
He said it was common practice for the country’s intelligence community to get involved in the political battles of the ruling party, often targeting certain people in the process.
The State Security Agency also reacted to insinuations about its involvement in the break-in.
“The attack on the office of the head of judiciary should be a concern to all. As indicated already by government, law enforcement agencies are working on the matter to ensure the security of our democratic institutions.”
In a separate incident, police are investigating a robbery at the home of a South Gauteng High Court judge at the weekend. Police gave no further details.