End of the road for rule of law

The bizarre case of Swaziland's detained chief government vehicle inspector, Bhantshana Gwebu, is further evidence that the judicial system has gone to the dogs. While the constitution places King Mswati and the Queen Mother above the law, it now appears that High Court judges feel that they, too, should not be accountable to the very laws that they have sworn to uphold and safeguard.

January 24th, 2014

The bizarre case of Swaziland's detained chief government vehicle inspector, Bhantshana Gwebu, is further evidence that the judicial system has gone to the dogs. While the constitution places King Mswati and the Queen Mother above the law, it now appears that High Court judges feel that they, too, should not be accountable to the very laws that they have sworn to uphold and safeguard.

In the latest shocking display of his utter contempt for the rule of law, Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi sent Gwebu to prison for seven days for contempt of court on January 20 – having refused him the right to legal representation. Just think about that for a second. And then ponder Ramodibedi’s reasoning (if you can even call it that) for violating Gwebu’s right to be represented by an attorney – the fact that Gwebu’s lawyer was not present when Gwebu committed the ‘offence’.

Just take another second or two to digest that.

And now consider Gwebu’s ‘offence’ itself.

On Saturday January 18th, Gwebu – in his role as chief government vehicle inspector – charged and arrested, Vusi Tsela, for driving a government vehicle without authority. Now, Tsela happens to be the official driver for High Court judge, Esther Ota, and he had taken her to one of the elite schools in Mbabane so that she could buy her children’s uniforms before classes resumed on January 21st.

When Gwebu pounced and demanded to see the official documents that allowed Tsela to drive the car to this school on a Saturday, he discovered that Tsela did not have the right papers. He subsequently charged him and impounded the car, while Ota pleaded that she was on her way to court because she was the duty judge for the weekend and had just needed to run some personal errands before going to work.

Needless to say, this affront to the judiciary could not be stomached – well not by Chief Justice Ramodibedi. According to the Times of Swaziland, Gwebu was rapidly issued with a warrant of arrest and handed himself in to police on Monday January 20th. With astonishing speed – particularly given the glacial pace of many cases in Swaziland – Gwebu appeared before Ramodibedi in his chambers at the High Court on the very same day. And was then immediately taken off to jail, pending his hearing a week later.

A determined Gwebu said he would never stop doing his job despite this ordeal. “I acted within the scope and conduct of my duties,” said Gwebu. “I did not arrest the judge but her driver.”

And Gwebu has a lot of work to do. It was the routine abuse of government vehicles by public servants that resulted in the setting up of his unit a few years ago – and he has continued to face stiff opposition from corrupt politicians and senior government officials. And now it seems that the judges have also joined the fray. Indeed, Ramodibedi has himself been accused of abusing a government vehicle in the past.

But Gwebu has never faced consequences of this magnitude before – except for when he was given a thorough beating from members of the Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force who were driving an army vehicle without authorisation.

The Law Society of Swaziland (LSS) has shied away from commenting on the recent incident although its secretary general, Nkosinathi Manzini, has expressed shock. But the LSS is on even thinner ice than usual following King Mswati’s appointment late last year of Sibusiso Shongwe as the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. Shongwe is a staunch supporter of the no-political-party Tinkhundla system and a harsh critic of the LSS.

The LSS and Shongwe fell out in 2011 after Swazi lawyers went on strike to protest a number of Ramodibedi’s irregular decisions, including rejecting all cases that touched on Mswati. Shongwe, who was a member of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) until his promotion to the Cabinet, jumped to Ramodibedi’s defence and accused the LSS of advocating for regime change. He even called the LSS a political party – a very dirty word in Swaziland’s absolute monarchy.

When the LSS summoned him to appear before its tribunal to answer charges of bringing the organisation into disrepute, he refused. And now he sits atop the entire justice system – even though he has a fraud charge hanging over his head after Swazi Observer Group of Newspapers accused him of defrauding it.

Meanwhile, Ramodibedi himself is facing impeachment charges in his home country, Lesotho, where he was suspended from his position as Court of Appeal president. So it sadly comes as no surprise that Ramodibedi has bypassed the law in this latest case. Despite his position as the head of the judiciary, the law seems to be something that he can take or leave – depending on who is involved. Clearly, he believes that there is a group of powerful, influential people – not just the King and his mother – who are above the law of the land.

But it still doesn’t entirely explain why Gwebu is languishing for doing his job. The charges against the driver could easily have been dropped. Gwebu could have been given a talking to behind closed doors. But it’s worth remembering that Gwebu once impounded Ramodibedi’s official car for allegedly abusing it. Perhaps this is partly pay-back time for that.

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