In 1977, when apartheid was at its zenith and Johannesburg still had a booming city centre, I helped organise a conference at a five-star establishment, the President Hotel, where, as a first-year university student, I was hugely impressed by the passion and profundity of our keynote speaker, the 46-year-old firebrand secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, one Desmond Tutu.

His doom-laden warnings to the ancien régime were laced with humour, advising: “I often wonder what the white parliament would talk about if there were no blacks in South Africa.”

Recent happenings here recall an update of Tutu’s joke: I wonder what today’s political establishment and the forces of social media outrage would talk about, and move so swiftly to censure and condemn, were it not for the existence of the state of Israel.

Certainly, to the extent that SA has a foreign policy at all, beyond a series of outdated impulses and struggle-retro gestures, Israel is the one place where President Cyril Ramaphosa, international relations minister Naledi Pandor and Pretoria’s paladins can shine their human rights credentials.

Silence on the slaughter in Syria, assent to concentration camps for China’s Uighurs, no entry here for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, no censure for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, heralding stolen elections across the continent from Congo to Uganda. These are just a few of the signposts on the downward slope from Nelson Mandela’s lofty 1993 pledge that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”.

But while this lamp has long since dimmed, at least Israel and its violations of rights of Palestinians provide a handy alibi and a lonely exception to our generous support everywhere else in the world for “tyrannical leaders hated by their own populations”. This was the editorial view of Business Day in February 2020, when the ANC and Ramaphosa provided support for the despotic and economically ruinous regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

However, the fervour of anti-Israel sentiment appears to be infectious. How else to view the swift condemnation by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) of chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng for his pro-Israel comments in June last year? Leaving aside the merits of the issue — indeed it is incautious of our chief judicial officer to wade into contested public policy space outside a judgment — it was the speed of this episode that was breathtaking.

From the lodging of a complaint against him last July, the Judicial Conduct Committee took just seven months to find the chief justice guilty of contravening articles of the code of judicial conduct and ordering him to give an apology. Mogoeng has appealed against this decision.

Yet weighed in the balance between controversial comment and the wholesale abuse of judicial office, and far worse, the JSC is revealed to be hypocritical, lax and dilatory in its core tasks of policing this arm of state.

How else does it explain its lassitude when it comes to the egregious conduct of the rampaging judge president of the Western Cape, John Hlophe?

Amazingly, it is now 13 long years ago that two justices of the constitutional court complained to the JSC that Hlophe had “attempted to improperly influence” them in 2008 regarding the Jacob Zuma trial in respect of the arms deal. Filibustering has allowed Hlophe to spin this matter out, seemingly ad infinitum, as the lawyers say.

The JSC then took more than a decade to dispose of the matter, and it reversed a harsher sentence proposed by its tribunal and instead substituted a lesser sentence on the drunk jurist. This allowed him to retire with a wrist slap and keep his full salary and benefits, including his salary for life. Nice work if you can get it, especially with such lumbering and inert judicial watchdogs at the helm.

Meantime, Israel itself lurches towards another stalemated electoral outcome this week. But at least its Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has led the world and vaccinated over 70% of his population. His swift action might just see him returning yet again to the prime minister’s office. And keep him out of jail if convicted in his looming corruption trial.

But Israel has a record of jailing felonious prime ministers and even a former president. So alongside allowing SA to find an outlet for human rights outage, this too might be an example worth copying. Eventually.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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