A Chief Justice with no judgment

Jeremy Gordin says Mogoeng Mogoeng's "prayer" was disreputable fear-mongering

The annual anniversary of the birth of the brave Galilean, Yeshua of Nazareth – Christmas, a time of Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All People – is close by.

So, in writing my final column for the year, and provided I can locate them, I should be trying to channel the better angels of my nature, as Abraham Lincoln called them in 1861 and as Steven Pinker did more recently. Shouldn’t I?

I should – and I am. But there’s one person towards whom neither my better angels nor I feel any goodwill at all. I’m referring to Mogoeng Thomas Reetsang Mogoeng, the current Chief Justice (CJ) of South Africa.

Recently, Mogoeng not only invoked Yeshua of Nazareth’s name to bolster an untrue and dangerous imputation, but also invited into the court of public discourse the fallen angel, the master perjurer known as “the father of all evil”. To certain of my ancestors, ones with whom Yeshua likely sojourned near the Dead Sea, this angel was known as Mastema (elsewhere dubbed Satan) – and was considered the “personification” of hatred, hostility, and enmity.

About a week ago, speaking at a ceremony held at the Tembisa hospital, one aimed at celebrating nurses and health workers, Mogoeng called on God to destroy any vaccine “meant to infuse the mark of the anti-christ symbol, 666, in the lives of people”.

“Whatever phase is set to be coming, Lord, I [sic] judge it, I run it down in the name of Jesus. I lock out every demon of Covid-19. I lock out any vaccine that is not of you. If there be any vaccine that is of the devil ... meant to corrupt [people’s] DNA, any such vaccine, Lord God Almighty, may it be destroyed by fire,” Mogoeng intoned.

The next day, supposedly hosting a media briefing on the 2019/20 Judiciary Annual Report, a defensive Mogoeng doubled down – with his voice at Malema-like volume – on what he’d said, adding there was no need for him to separate his judicial responsibilities from his Christian “beliefs”. He could say whatever he wanted to say. 

“I’m not a scientist. I’m a prayer warrior and I’m encouraging prayer warriors to pray. ...This is a free country. People must be careful of wanting to take us back to the era of colonialism and apartheid, where freedom of thought and opinion was [were?] not allowed. I’m not going to be silenced. I don’t care about the consequences. ... I’m not going to toe any line and it does not matter how many people criticise me.”

What do you suppose precipitated this gurgitation of dangerous drivel? Someone in the Mogoeng family has suffered from Covid-19? The CJ spends too many evenings reading about those genocidal plots hatched against the peoples of Africa by Bill Gates and those whose ancestors gave us colonialism and apartheid?

I don’t know nor do I much care what Mogoeng’s motivations are. But on the off chance that the CJ has been possessed by a tokoloshe, dybbuk, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Woland, or even Satan himself, I want to consider some matters Mogoeng seems to have trouble grasping.

Bizarre as it is, Mogoeng is the chief justice of this country. This is why he gets invited to talk publicly. In other words, his words do, as they say, carry weight – albeit the weight of a compacted bale of solid waste. For Mogoeng to think he can “separate” himself from his “office,” or that others can do so, is nonsense.

Worse, you’ve heard of a wolf in sheep’s clothing? The phrase comes from words attributed to Yeshua. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15, KJV). What then about an off-the-wall preacher garbed in judicial robes? To be chief justice and simultaneously to spout codswallop is surely a species of criminal imposture, like impersonating a cop if you’re not one.

Whatever Mogoeng might feel about colonialists, whatever pipe dreams he might harbour about increasing the role of customary law in our legal system, and whether he or we might like it, Mogoeng, as head of the apex court, is the chief representative of a centuries-old legal system. Those who know about such matters will tell you that Roman-Dutch law is a respected, rich, and esteemed system. They will also tell you that Mogoeng’s utterances make them feel like weeping – or gnashing their teeth.

Covid19 is frightening because it’s invisible and mysterious. As a result, there is inevitably more disinformation peddled about the virus and how to deal with it than there is in Ace Magashule’s mind. Consequently, there also exists enormous uncertainty about the Covid-19 vaccines, especially given the speed with which they were developed.

But reliable studies have concluded that the various vaccines are safe – and these studies are easy to find. Moreover – boringly, perhaps – no one seems to have located the mark of the beast on or in any of those tested. (Only marks of the beast I’ve ever seen is when my bull terrier Olsen comes in from the rain. Only 666 I’ve ever encountered is 666 Fifth Avenue, New York city, in my day the head office of Doubleday Publishers – though I do note that in 2007 the building was bought by Kushner Properties, the president of which is listed as you-know-who ...)

Mogoeng’s “prayer” was disreputable fear- and rumour-mongering. Worse, as a Politicsweb reader, William Gild, noted: “What [people’s] leaders say, not least the chief justice, does have consequences, and the chief justice indicating that the Covid-19 vaccine(s) are the work of the devil will inevitably effect uptake of any vaccine that actually makes it to our shores. Without high uptake, distribution of any vaccine will be a waste of time.”

As pointed out by Stephen Grootes (see here), freedom of speech doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Mogoeng himself ruled in the Robert McBride defamation case: “Freedom of expression is a right to be exercised with due deference to, among others, the pursuit of national unity and reconciliation”.

In fact, as Nelson Mandela remarked – in the last line of Long Walk to Freedom – with freedom come responsibilities. Yet, just as the Second Wave has struck, Mogoeng feels free to suggest that the one thing that might contribute to saving us, a safe and effective vaccine, could be tainted by Satan and his representatives in the six major companies that have so far produced vaccines.

Nor does it seem remarkably wise for Mogoeng to contend that he can say whatever he likes, albeit not in a court judgement, at the very time that Judge Yahya John Hlophe is arguing the same in front of a Judicial Conduct Tribunal.

If Mogoeng wants to offer a prayer for people’s wellbeing, bully for him. He could pray that vaccines – and whatever else he wants to include – will protect us. But why introduce Satan, why give him free airtime? Did Satan petition for inclusion in the Tembisa proceedings?

About 700 words back, I tentatively suggested in mitigation that perhaps the chief justice has been possessed by a dybbuk, etc. Doesn’t seem like it. His bone-headed “prayer” and subsequent maunderings smack too much of late-night perusal of the views of those who subscribe inter alia to apocalyptic Christianity, coupled with libertarian-type, New Age-y rejection of mainstream science and medicine.

Well, whatever gets you through the night, chief justice. Just respect my privacy, though, and keep the stuff to yourself or to the Concourt tearoom.