Mogoeng’s lesson in constitutionalism to new ministers hits a nerve

FILE PICTURE: Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

‘May the oath or the affirmation judge most brutally any of us who is here for a show or any of us who will betray the constitutional aspirations of the people.’

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng departed from the script yesterday in Cape Town before swearing in the first batch of ministers in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new cabinet.

It was obvious that he was referring partly to the Zuma era when he spoke about “our history” in why he needed to “underscore the significance of the oath” to the new cabinet members, some of whom were old soldiers returning to duty and who had given the oath before.

The same Mogoeng, presiding over the bench in the Constitutional Court in 2016, had found that former president Jacob Zuma had failed to uphold and defend the constitution in his handling of the Nkandla scandal.

Mogoeng spoke passionately before calling Deputy President David Mabuza up to swear his oath.

Said Mogoeng: “Forgive me for departing from known procedure, but I will be failing in my duty if given our history I don’t underscore the significance of an oath of office.

“We are not here for a photo shoot; we are not here for a photo opportunity, we can’t travel all this long just to come, gather and undertake an insignificant task.

“Everybody who’s going to be called upon to take an oath or affirmation is required to do so as allegiance to the republic and obedience to the Constitution. If you like, you’ve come to enter into a formal contract with the people of South Africa.

“This oath of office or affirmation is going to judge you before the public even dares to do so. We cannot ritualistically gather here, read out this thing as if it is inconsequential. It exists because there is good reason for its existence.

“Otherwise it wouldn’t have found its way into our most important document as a republic which is the Constitution. The assumption is only people who have a measure of credibility and integrity and some character to write about are going to be presented here before the nation … as those who are going to serve them as dictated by the Constitution.

“May we all be warned that, speaking for myself, I’m not here because I have nothing to do, I could easily have designated this to the judge president of the High Court.

“I came here because our history since 1994 renders it absolutely necessary that we conscientise ourselves as deputy president, ministers and deputy ministers about the profundity of the responsibility we are about to assume.

“It’s not about assuming power so that you can look important. It’s not about having resources distributed to your department or section so that we can now begin to look like we owe you something; it is to become a servant of South Africa.

“And may the oath or the affirmation judge most brutally any of us who is here for a show or any of us who will betray the constitutional aspirations of the people of South Africa after having an oath or affirmation administered to him or her.

“I could say more, but time does not permit. I’m just saying … if after reflection you consider yourself disqualified, I’m sure the president won’t mind if you pull out.”

At that point, the tension was broken and everyone laughed.

Ministers Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom were the two prominent returning names who again did not take the oath, which involves saying “so help me God”. They instead said, in secular fashion, “I affirm.”

Twitter and the rest of South was, to put it mildly, blown away by the gravitas of the chief justice and his words.

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