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Donations will undermine integrity of justice system

Somewhere in Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla’s speech at the official opening of the High Court on Tuesday is an outrageous revelation that should make us all hang our heads in shame.

Justice Lehohla coolly read out the names of businessmen and private companies he said had made financial donations towards the High Court’s official opening ceremony.

Together, these businessmen and companies contributed M44 209 towards the annual event.

Six individuals, some of whom are government contractors, donated M40 999 that was used to provide food and drinks to the guests.

Some companies, which include two hotels and a video production firm, gave M3 300 to the High Court.

One prominent businessman donated M27 359.

The audience of ministers, judges, senior government officials, diplomats and the media giggled and clapped as the chief justice made the announcement.

They should have been dismayed.

Elsewhere guests would have started streaming out of the hall in disgust at the mention of such disgraceful news.

To say we are astounded is an understatement. 

Whether such benevolence was solicited or not, the judiciary should not, under any circumstances, receive donations from individuals and corporates.

It matters not that the giver might have made the donation without ulterior motives.

In the same vein, we are not suggesting that by making donations the businessmen and private companies are currying favours with the courts.

Nor are we saying the courts have been bought.

We are merely saying that such gifts have a potential to seriously undermine both the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

They create a perception that the judiciary panders to the whims of the rich.

If one of the donors were to have a case in court today
and a judgment was to be delivered in their favour, the
public perception will be that the court has been influenced.

We must remember that these businessmen are potential litigants or they already have cases pending before the court.

The courts must have both political and financial independence.

A judiciary that eats from the palms of individuals and corporates is a danger to the society that it seeks to serve.

A judiciary that is not financially independent is incapable of delivering justice to everyone regardless of the social status or the size of their bank balances.

Justice Lehohla, by virtue of being the most senior judge and the head of the judiciary, should know the pitfalls that come with such gifts.

It is therefore his responsibility to demand more financial support from the government so the judiciary does not
have to depend on handouts from individuals and corporates. 

We expected his speech on Tuesday to be more forthright in making the case for more resources, especially when we consider that 2010 was the year when a financial crisis almost paralysed our judiciary. 

The High Court spent the better half of the year on a shoestring budget so strained that it could not afford
to bring witnesses to court or hire replacement cars for judges.

Of course Justice Lehohla touched on these issues, albeit in a somewhat timid way.

If he was loath to offend the powers-that-be at the official opening, we hope he will have the courage to whisper those wise words to them in private.

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