Crucial meeting on judicial independence in Africa: June 2 - 6, 2019

Leading members of the judiciary across Africa will be gathering in Cape Town, 2 – 6 June 2019, and their focus will be on a crucial issue challenging judges from virtually every part of the continent: judicial independence and everything that promotes or hinders it.

Judicial officers from at least 30 countries are to take part in the conference, paying close attention to the multi-faceted issues around judicial independence.

Convened by the Judicial Officers Association of South Africa (JOASA), the conference brings together the Africa regional bloc of the International Association of Judges (IAJ), a number of whose top officials will also attend.

The president of JOASA, senior South African magistrate, Daniel Thulare, said the conference was crucial in that it would submit a conference report about the state of affairs in Africa to the IAJ at its world meeting in September in Kazakhstan. These reports, from Africa and the other continental blocs, are then used as the basis for lobbying and research.

In his view, the IAJ reports often lead to solutions. For example, some years ago magistrates in South Africa did not have car allowances. There would be situations in some provinces where a magistrate might refuse bail in a case involving a contested gang shooting. And yet that same magistrate would be obliged to catch a train home along with members of those same gangs, and their security was compromised. “It was something that the Africa bloc reported to the IAJ. They in turn lobbied with the South African authorities and now magistrates enjoy the benefit of a car allowance and the safety it might offer.”

One focus at this year’s Africa bloc conference will surely be Lesotho, Thulare predicts. In the capital, Maseru, one finds that the highest court is not functioning while the Chief Justice is suspended with no hope of a quick solution to the problem.

“The situation there touches on the integrity of judicial office. It is a troubling situation although many in the region, even judges, are not fully aware of what is happening there.”

The difficulties throughout the continent should not be underestimated. Professor Charles Fombad, of the University of Pretoria, recently gave a paper in New York on the challenges to judicial independence focusing particularly on Africa. He identified three major issues. Inherited design flaws from the colonial era have not been updated despite their limitations, particularly, in Francophone countries, in relation to the power of the President over the body that appoints, removes and promotes judges. The non-implementation of provisions on judicial independence is another problem and it is often coupled with the third problem, namely that in many countries the executive is fighting to reverse many of the gains made towards judicial independence since 1990.

“In this era of democratisation, because so many politically sensitive cases come before the courts, and in view of the judges in some jurisdictions asserting their independence, the judiciary increasingly finds itself on a collision course with the executive branch.”

These, and related issues including working conditions conducive to judicial independence, will be on the minds of everyone participating in the conference.

Director of the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town, Vanja Karth, whose unit is assisting with the organization of the conference, welcomed the meeting and this year’s theme. "The DGRU's core focus is on issues of judicial governance on the continent. It is thus a wonderful opportunity for us to participate in a conference that is so relevant, particularly given its important theme. We hope that the discussions and networking opportunities will help guide our work, ensuring that we are responding to real issues, and helping to find solutions to the problems that are identified."

Thulare wears another hat, being the representative for Africa to the Special Rapporteur on judicial independence at the United Nations. And in this capacity, he also believes that the conference could have a major impact. Obviously up-beat about the possibilities he had this message for everyone thinking of participating at the event, or who will be keeping up to date via the media:

“Africa’s thought-leaders and opinion-makers in the Judiciary are meeting at this conference for a festival of ideas on judicial independence, competence and the welfare of its judges. Africa’s aspirations of transforming herself into a constitutional, democratic, economically prosperous, socially stable and politically vibrant continent depends on a strong, effective and efficient Judiciary. Do not miss out. Play your part!”

  • We will be bringing you news on the conference as well as the links on social media that you may use to stay up to date on papers, discussions and issues of significance.