Former judge Michael Ramodibedi RIP

The most controversial judge in the SADC region over the last several decades, Justice Michael Ramodibedi, has died. Judge Ramodibedi, 74, died in Johannesburg but the cause of death has not been confirmed. He leaves his wife and five children. Among other positions, the judge served as Chief Justice of what is now known as Eswatini, and as president of the court of appeal in his home country, Lesotho. He left the bench in both countries under a cloud of disgrace.

Judge Michael Ramodibedi, who died earlier this month, was appointed to the bench in Lesotho during 1986. During the next years, he also served as a judge in a number of other countries, authoring decisions in the Seychelles and Boswana among others. During 2008 he was elevated to the position of Lesotho’s Court of Appeal president, and at the same time he served on the court of appeal in what is now Eswatini.  

In 2014 after a series of high-profile disputes, a tribunal was set up to inquire into allegations of abuse of office made by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane. Part of the problem at the time was an ongoing feud between Ramodibedi and the then Chief Justice of Lesotho, Mahapela Lehohla, about their status and which outranked the other. One notorious incident involved the drivers of the two judicial leaders jockeying for position on the road as they left a state occasion. 

When it became clear that he had lost his legal battle to prevent a tribunal from going ahead, the judge left the country as King Letsie III signed an order dismissing him. Judge Ramodibedi then began full time work in Eswatini as that country’s chief justice. In that capacity, his tenure proved even more controversial than in Lesotho, with allegations of abuse of office as well as infringing the rule of law.

Finally, following investigations by Eswatini's anti-corruption commission, he faced arrest. He locked himself into his official residence rather than surrender and even threatened to shoot police if they tried to take him into custody. When the water to his home was switched off in a bid to force him to hand himself over, he resorted to using water from the swimming pool.

In a bizarre campaign to uphold his name, supporters – rumoured to include members of his family – set up accounts on social media to challenge the arrest warrant as an infringement of his office. These accounts also suggested that he had immunity from arrest under the rule of law.

Finally, he agreed to appear before the Judicial Service Commission. He did not do so personally, sending his legal representative to the commission instead. After the JSC found he had acted improperly, he was dismissed by King Mwsati. Ironically, he had spent considerable time, energy and financial resources to cultivate what the judge appeared to believe was a warm relationship with the monarch. This did not prevent his dismissal, however. Following discussions between Kings Mswati and Letsie, it was agreed that Ramodibedi would be allowed to leave Eswatini a free man, and all charges would be withdrawn.

Thereafter he was said to be living in Ladybrand, just across the border with South Africa. At one stage there was serious talk that he would make a come-back in Lesotho, a country where judicial leaders are often seen to be associates of political leaders. In this case, impeachment action had been taken against the judge by Thabane, head of the All Basotho Convention (ABC), while Ramodibedi was said to be close to Thabane’s then rival, Pakalitha Mosilili, in power in Maseru at the time the judge left Eswatini in disgrace.

Nothing ever came of the proposal that he be brought back as head of the court of appeal, and little has been heard of him in the last few years.