Sexual harassment in the courts is an open secret

But the Chief Justice has still not taken steps to deal with it

| By and

The authors argue that the sexual harassment in the courts is not being dealt with urgently or appropriately. Illustration: Lisa Nelson

On 30 June 2015 a “Mrs Gumede”, an acting regional court magistrate, lodged a formal complaint involving corruption and sexual harassment against Eric Nzimande, Regional Court President in Kwazulu-Natal. Nine years later the misconduct inquiry against Nzimande still has not been finalised.

These were not trivial allegations. Gumede alleged that she was sexually assaulted and harassed by Nzimande. She alleged that Nzimande made sexual advances to her, calling her into his office, asking her to sit on his lap while talking to her. She said he suggested she was indebted to him for her job and that he was personally responsible for her position as acting regional court magistrate.

Nzimande apparently told Gumede of other magistrates who would engage in sexual favours in return for employment perks, and he attempted to coerce and pressure her into engaging into a sexual relationship with him. She says he sent her intimate photographs via his cellular phone and extorted more than R140,000 from her.

Nzimande pleaded not guilty to all the charges of misconduct against him. During the preliminary investigation conducted by the Magistrates Commission, reliable evidence was obtained indicating that the allegations against Nzimande were of a serious nature. Having considered the existing evidence against him, the Commission resolved to charge Nzimande with misconduct, and recommend his suspension. In October 2018, the Minister of Justice provisionally suspended Nzimande. This decision was later confirmed by the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.

Four years later, in February 2019, the Commission approved the appointment of three Regional Magistrate Presiding Officers and two Persons to Lead the Evidence (PLEs) to preside over the inquiry. Five years after this, on 14 February 2024, the chairperson of the Ethics Committee in the Commission, advocate Naomi Manaka, told Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services that the trial of Nzimande was ongoing.

What’s going on?

There is a problem of sexual harassment in our courts and increasing perceptions of associated corruption. The “Under Pressure” report by the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) highlights “a slow but steady increase in the faction of South Africans who view … magistrates as corrupt. It is extremely concerning that there is a perception of corruption among magistrates, from magistrates themselves. It is important to note that corruption may go beyond bribes and gifts, and may include threats, sexual harassment, and blackmail …. The results seem to suggest that some who have no place in the magistracy seem to have entered it.”

The man in charge of the Judiciary, the Chief Justice, has not appeared to prioritise the introduction of a sexual harassment policy during his tenure.

In his interview in February 2022 during the process for appointing the Chief Justice, Justice Raymond Zondo said “I simply make the point that to the extent that there may have been a concern by any of the other candidates, particularly those who might be in leadership positions within the judiciary, to the extent that there might have been concerns that there is no policy, sexual harassment policy and maternity leave, I would simply say they must raise these things in the heads of courts forum. They are members of that forum. They are not restricted from raising them and certainly I would be very keen to make sure that, you know, I give my support.” He went on to suggest that he would rapidly meet heads of court to “move on this”.

In February 2023, the Chief Justice said a committee had been set up under Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya to draft an anti-sexual harassment policy for the judiciary. As we understand it, such a policy has not been adopted. With only five months to go, what are the chances that such a policy will be part of this Chief Justice’s legacy?

Sexual harassment in the courts is an open secret, with few, if any, consequences for perpetrators. Various measures must be put in place to stop it. The first step is an all-encompassing sexual harassment policy, with trained officials in each province who can provide assistance to survivors of sexual harassment in the courts. Before any survivor can think about lodging a complaint, psychological support is needed.

Zikhona Ndlebe is a researcher at the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit, an applied research unit in the Public Law Department at the University of Cape Town.

Jenna Maujean is a research assistant in the Unit.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

Correction on 2024-04-09 12:27

The spelling of the name of one of the authors has been corrected.

TOPICS:  Court Gender

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