Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the official opening of the Mpumalanga High Court, Mbombela, Mpumalanga
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Mr. Ronald Lamola
Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr. John Jeffrey
Premier of Mpumalanga, Ms. Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane
Members of the Executive Council
Executive Mayor for Ehlanzeni District, Mr. Jesta Sidell
Executive Mayor for City of Mbombela, Mr. Sibusiso Mathonsi
Chairperson of Mpumalanga House of Traditional Leaders, Inkosi Ngomane
Justice of the Constitutional Court, Madam Sisi Khampepe,
Judge President of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Justice Francis Legodi
Members of the Judiciary and the Magistracy
Ladies and Gentlemen
This is indeed a historic day for the people of Mpumalanga, as we officially open the first provincial High Court right here in Mbombela.
This court represents a new era for the citizens of this province who have travelled a long and difficult road to get access to justice.
Until now, citizens whose matters fell outside the jurisdiction of the local magistrate’s courts had to obtain relief in the High Court in Pretoria.
This caused considerable inconvenience, delays and financial hardship.
As government we promised that every province in this country will have a fully-fledged, well-resourced and capacitated High Court in line with the provisions of the Superior Courts Act of 2013.
We are here today to fulfill that promise.
Ours is a society committed to the advancement of human rights, of which the right to equality before the law, to equal protection of the law and benefit of the law, forms a critical part.
It is however not enough that such a right is merely prescribed.
For it to be given full effect we must endeavor to broaden access to the law.
We must ensure that its shelter its shade and its shield is provided to everyone regardless of their social circumstances.
Since the ushering in of democracy in 1994 we have prioritized the reform of our justice system to rid it of barriers to access to justice.
Amongst these are the costs of obtaining legal representation, linguistic accessibility as well as accessibility for people with disabilities, lengthy delays and case postponements, backlogs in the court roll, and people having to travel long physical distances to reach courtrooms, as has been the case here in Mpumalanga.
These administrative reforms have been necessary because they have corroded confidence in the judicial system.
Our courts, as then Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo said in 2010, “make decisions which affect the liberty, property and dignity of individuals.” It is therefore critical that court proceedings must be accessible and comprehensible to all, but especially society’s most vulnerable.
For over a century this province was tied to the notorious Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court in Pretoria established by the apartheid regime.
A number of historic trials took place in what was known as the Eastern Transvaal, like the 1977 Bethal Trial where 18 political activists were convicted and imprisoned for playing a role in fermenting revolution against the state and for being behind the 1976 Soweto uprisings.
There is also the 1985 Delmas Treason Trial, one the longest political trials in the history of South Africa, where eleven activists were sentenced to imprisonment ranging from five to eleven years; a decision that was overturned by the appeal court in 1989.
These trials under took place under extreme secrecy and were presided over by judges representing an unjust system.
Today we are opening a court that will administer justice without fear or favour, in an open and accessible process that reflects the ethos of our Constitution.
Never and never again will the rights of our people be undermined by the courts.
Today our judiciary is a fiercely independent arbiter in disputes, and plays an oversight role. It is representative of the people of this country and is committed to upholding constitutionalism.
This court will hear civil and criminal matters and serve the people of Manyelethi in Bushbuckridge, of Manyeveni in Mbombela, and of Kromdraai in Chief Albert Luthuli, who no longer have to incur huge travelling costs to have their legal matters heard.
It will hear appeals or reviews from lower courts falling within its jurisdiction and also manage the province’s five circuit courts that play such an important role in bringing services to our people.
Since its first sitting on the 13th of May this year, it has already finalized a significant number of cases.
Between April and the end of September this year this court finalized 84% of its reserved judgments.
Of the total of 63 delivered, 53 were within three months. Seventy percent of enrolled civil matters and 60% of criminal matters on the court roll were finalized in the same period. The Middleburg High Court has a similar success rate.
Housed in this building are total of 12 courtrooms, including a court room for use by specialized High Courts such as the Labour Court and the Land Claims Court.
I am particularly pleased that this High Court will strengthen the work of the Family Advocate’s Office, that plays such an important role in advancing children’s rights.
The legal and forensic skills of Family Advocates and social workers in mediating matters involving children and their parents and extended families is to be commended.
It will also play a formative role in ensuring access to justice for survivors of gender-based violence. In time to come this court, together with other courts around the country will be sufficiently resourced to expand the provision of services for women and children that respect their dignity and privacy.
This afternoon at the University of Mpumalanga, I will launch the 25-Year Review Report entitled “Towards a 25 Year Review 1994-2019.”
It is entitled “towards” because the report is not intended to be a final verdict on how the people of South Africa have experienced democracy in the last 25-years, but rather to stimulate discussions, debates and reflection amongst citizens.
Poverty, inequality and unemployment remain the biggest threats to our democracy.
Unfortunately and despite our best efforts, we continue to see the socio-economic rights of our citizens being degraded by others, and even more regretfully, neglected by the State.
This is a sobering reality that must give us cause for reflection here today.
Our courts face significant resource challenges and are already burdened with huge caseloads and backlogs as they strive to uphold the rights of our citizens.
It should not be, indeed it should never be that the time and resources of our courts are being used to fight legal battles when local, provincial and national government departments fail to meet their obligations and responsibilities to our citizens.
At a time when the public purse is severely constrained, It should not be that claims against the State continue to soar, particularly cases of medical negligence in our public health facilities, but also against the South African Police Service (SAPS).
This is putting immense pressure on provincial and national budgets. The actions of predatory law firms who exploit our people and take the lion’s share of payouts are worsening an already bad situation.
We are fed up of municipal managers, provincial and national governments who hoard or fraudulently disburse service delivery budgets, and who do not uphold the Batho Pele principles in dealing with our people.
We are tired of contemptuous attitudes where civil servants treat people with arrogance when they demand their rights be respected: and who have the audacity to say: “If you don’t like it take us to court”
Enough is enough, Sikathele!
It will be asked what can be done about this worrying trend.
The answer is simple: our municipalities and government departments must do their jobs.
They must implement government decisions, manage their budgets prudently, and deliver the services that it is our people’s right to access.
They must deliver healthcare, education, housing, water, sanitation and electricity without being compelled to do so by the courts. The services must be of quality - and respect our people’s dignity.
And where court orders are issued against them, there must be compliance. Failure to do so leads citizens to lose confidence in the integrity of the judicial process – which in turn erodes the rule of law.
As part of our new district-based development model we will be strengthening accountability and oversight in the implementation of government programmes.
We are working towards a day when no citizen who has no water, and no toilets in their children’s schools becomes so frustrated that that they feel their only recourse is the courts.
As we know, a court house, no matter how state-of-the-art, must be adequately resourced.
I want to thank the Office of the Chief Justice and of the Judge President for allocating to this court three permanent judges and two acting judges, together with law researchers, registrars, statisticians, librarians, clerks and other key administrative staff who keep the wheels of justice turning.
It is also pleasing to note that a number of legal aid offices also exist in this province that will assist our citizens to access justice.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A few months ago the mettle of our nation was sorely tested by the outbreak of violence directed at foreign nationals, and a spate of killings of women and children.
As I said at the time, what we witnessed spoke to a wider breakdown of the rule of law in the country, and was cause for great concern.
Thankfully, we managed to bring our country back from the brink, and are working tirelessly to implement our strategy to combat gender-based violence, to restore law and order in our communities, and to strengthen the work of our law-enforcement officials.
The courts are a place of refuge, that people turn to when their rights are denied.
When they approach the courts it is their rightful expectation that they will receive justice.
We are extremely fortunate that our judiciary is respected widely across society, and that our citizens accept its authority.
As US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter famously said: “The court’s authority – possessed of neither the purse nor the sword – ultimately rests on sustained public confidence in its moral sanction.”
As we strive to maintain the rule of law, and at the same time give effect to the rights of our citizens, it is critical that public confidence in the courts is maintained.
The impact of this court must extend beyond its magnificent structure.
It is not mere bricks and mortar.
It must empower every man, woman and child of this province.
It must be a beacon of hope for all who have suffered prejudice, victimization, injustice or harm.
It must inspire the young who want to follow in the footsteps of our great jurists like former Chief Justice Pius Langa, a son of this province.
It must become a center of excellence that advances justice and redresses the wrongs of the past, especially through the Land Claims and Labour Courts.
It must be an agent of transformation and issue progressive judgments that advance the rights of our people, especially their socio-economic rights.
It must set the bar for jurisprudence high, and make its mark not just in Mpumalanga but throughout the country.
In this the land of the rising sun, a new day has dawned for the people of Mpumalanga. I declare this court open. Let Justice reign.
I thank you!