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Mogoeng Mogeong: the end of an era, and a few errors

Mogoeng Mogoeng‘s term as Chief Justice officially ends at midnight on Sunday. 

When Mogoeng was appointed to the role in 2011, many were alarmed. 

President Jacob Zuma had overlooked the natural fit for the position, the brilliant and independent Dikgang Moseneke. Would Mogoeng, whose judgments positioned him as a religious traditionalist, be a Zuma lackey? 🤷🏽‍♀️

But if Zuma was hoping for an easy ride he was disappointed. The court under Mogoeng acted as a bulwark against the worst of the state capture project. 

🔹The good: 

In 2016 Mogoeng delivered a scathing unanimous judgment against members of the National Assembly about the Nkandla debacle. 

He quickly earned the public’s respect as he spoke out about the court’s independence. 

He also made some moves to shore up the court’s poor administration, pushing for the “Office of the chief justice” and a separate budget from the department of justice. 

It’s a pity, then, that Mogoeng – who rapidly became quite well-respected even among those who had doubted him – ended his term on a sour note. 

🔹The bad: 

His conservative Christian views had a habit of leaking into his public statements, though not his judgments. Nonetheless these were often inappropriate – from his pro-Israeli comments, which he refused to retract, to his bizarre comment last year praying against any work of the devil that may exist in Covid vaccines, “meant to corrupt their DNA”.  

Then there was his abrupt recent departure before his term officially ended. Mogoeng took the long leave owing to him in May, after chairing a combative round of Judicial Service Commission interviews that led to litigation and the JSC being compelled to re-run them, as Gaye Davis reported on EWN. As we noted previously, the apex court has been in something of a crisis and his abrupt departure didn’t help. 

We’re grateful that someone worse did not hold this top spot during the state capture years but disappointed where he muddled his legacy. 

As M&G’s Emsie Ferreira writes: 

“Those who cheer at his awkward departure are not wrong, but may do well to remember that when all was at stake, he turned out to be the unlikely chief justice we never knew we needed.”

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 14 October 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.