21 September 2011
Over 100 Swaziland lawyers take to the streets in protest against Chief Justice
On 21 September 2011, over 100 lawyers marched in the streets of Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland in protest against the Chief Justice Mr Michael Ramodibedi. The aim of the protest was to deliver petitions to the Ministry of Justice, the Judicial Services Commission through its secretary and the Chief Justice (CJ) himself. The protest march comes two months after lawyers embarked on a boycott of courts of Swaziland.
Swaziland lawyers embarked on the court boycott after the CJ issued a series of unlawful practice directives, to all courts of the land, directing them not to admit certain cases. In one directive, the CJ instructed the Registrar that cases would only be allocated to judges by the CJ himself, and no other officer. In another practice directive, issued in June 2011, the CJ instructed the Registrar and officers of all courts in the land that cases involving the king should not be admitted. These regrettable actions of the CJ were largely viewed as interference not only with the administration of the courts, but also as a denial of the fundamental right to access justice.
Also included in the lawyers’ grievances is the failure or refusal of the JSC to respond and act on complaints of sexual harassment levelled against the CJ. The CJ is alleged to have sexually assaulted female court personnel, by fondling their breasts and buttocks on different occasions. Despite a formal complaint having been filed with the JSC over two months ago, no action has been taken by the JSC. Constitutionally, once a complaint has been filed, the JSC is enjoined to cause to be formed, an ad hoc committee that will look into the allegations raised. Meanwhile the head of government, Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini was captured in the media saying that the government is proud of the CJ, despite all these allegations.
Since the boycott began, citizens and residents of Swaziland have not been able to approach the courts.
The breakdown in the rule of law and the assault on the independence of the judiciary has actually produced a domino-effect in the human rights spectrum in Swaziland. In a recent development connected to this breakdown of the judicial machinery in Swaziland, a bus driver, who was unrepresented, was convicted and fined R6000 (about US$1000) for a traffic offence. He could not pay the fine and was kept in custody. This case illustrates the extent to which the breakdown in the rule of law, the boycott of the courts by lawyers and the JSC’s refusal to deal with complaints brought before it are negatively affecting the rights of citizens a fair trial.
Subsequent to his incarceration, bus conductors, drivers, and transport operators staged a two-day protest which saw the cities of Mbabane and Manzini coming to a standstill. Public transport operations were disrupted as the protest turned violent, with casualties on both the protestors’ side and the state police’s side. This protest, although branded illegal by the government, saw the Commissioner of Police calling for a negotiated settlement, calling protesters to come to the table.
The judicial crisis currently afflicting Swaziland adds to the woes of an already crumbling system of government. The country is currently beset by an education crisis, financial crisis and a health crisis. Schools which were scheduled to open for the third term a week ago remain closed due to government’s failure to pay in excess of R80 Million (approx US$11.4) for orphaned and vulnerable children. Tertiary students also remain in limbo as regards their funding for this academic year, which began in August. Hospitals are reportedly out of anti-retroviral treatment drugs. The country is still awaiting a R2.4 Billion loan from South Africa, after it ran short of cash a few months ago. The financial crisis, although largely blamed on diminished SACU receipts, is largely viewed as a result of reckless spending and failure to clamp down on corruption, even amongst cabinet ministers. The loss due to corruption was pegged at R80 Million (approx US$11.4 ) per month, an estimate given by the Minister for Finance Majozi Sithole.
SWAZI LAWYERS MARCH IN PROTEST