M&G pulls ‘hanging judge’ claim against Ramon Leon

Publication forced to apologise after making false claims against highly-regarded jurist following his death

The Mail & Guardian newspaper has removed a report from its website describing Justice Ramon Leon, who passed away over the weekend, as a “hanging judge” and making a number of false claims against him. Its original report on Leon’s death, posted on Monday and also pushed out on social media, was headed “’Hanging judge’ dies.” It led with the claim that “The man who sentenced Solomon Mahlangu to death has died”, beneath a picture of Mahlangu.

It further asserted that “Judge Leon was dubbed the 'hanging judge' during apartheid and he sentenced both Mahlangu and Andrew Zondo.” This post went viral on Twitter. Among the reactions to the original post on Twitter were: “We welcome his death. Long overdue really”; “He thought he will live forever.. He's dead and a good news”; “Thanks Lord I hope he's going to hell where he belongs and I also wish his family can suffer after his death so that they can feel that pain”; “May #SolomonMahlangu R.I.P i don't feel sorry for the Judge is on his way to Hell.”

After it was pointed out to the M&G on social media that it was Judge Theron – who was labelled as a “hanging judge” at the time - who had convicted and sentenced Mahlangu for murder in 1978 for the Goch Street shootings in Johannesburg (on the common purpose doctrine), the publication amended its report to claim that “The man who refused the appeal of Solomon Mahlangu’s death sentence has died….Judge Leon was dubbed a ‘hanging judge’ and was involved in the legal proceedings that saw both Mahlangu and Andrew Zondo to their deaths.”

Beneath the article it appended the following correction: “A previous version of this article claimed that Ramon Leon had sentenced Solomon Mahlangu to death. Leon turned down Mahlangu’s appeal of his death sentence. The Mail & Guardian regrets the error.” A report on the IOL website published on Monday afternoon also claimed “that Leon senior was notorious during his years as a judge in apartheid South Africa when he was particularly feared as a 'hanging judge'. He also refused the appeal of anti-apartheid activist Solomon Mahlangu against his death sentence.”

After it was pointed out to the M&G that the claim that Leon had turned down Mahlangu’s appeal was also false the publication pulled the story from its website and placed a new one online headed: “Ramon Leon, Tony Leon's father, has died.” It included a new correction and apology which stated:

“A previous version of this article claimed Ramon Leon had sentenced Solomon Mahlangu to death and referred to him as a ‘hanging judge’. A subsequent correction had claimed Leon turned down Mahlangu’s appeal of his death sentence. In both these instances, we repeated reporting from elsewhere without checking the veracity of these reports. We hold ourselves to better standards and apologise to the Leon family.”

The claim that Leon had a hand in the death of Solomon Mahlangu appears to originate from the pro-Zupta Black First Land First movement which described Tony Leon's father last year as an "an apartheid hanging judge who helped hang young revolutionaries like Andrew Zondo and Solomon Mahlangu."

The M&G report included no other information about Justice Leon’s life and career other than that he was Tony Leon’s father, and had sentenced Andrew Zondo to death for murder. 

Leon’s career

Justice Leon matriculated at Durban High School and proceeded to obtain his BA and LLB degrees from the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He was appointed QC at the age of the thirty three, before becoming a judge of the Natal Division of the Supreme Court in 1967. He became Chancellor of the University of Natal in March 1984. Following his early retirement in 1987, for health reasons, he was widely praised in legal circles. The Natal bench had, by that time, distinguished itself by the liberal character of many of its rulings. 

The chairman of the Natal Society of Advocates, David Gordon, described Leon as “one of the finest judges on the Natal bench. For years he administered the law in this Province with compassion, erudition and even-handedness. The official law reports bear testimony to his contribution to civil and criminal law, and he was in the vanguard of the Natal judiciary’s resistance to recent statutory and regulatory attacks upon the rule of law. The citizens of Natal of whatever colour, creed and political persuasion have lost a champion of their liberty and he will be sorely missed.” (Business Day, 17 June 1987)

Shortly before his retirement the Washington Post described Leon as a “veteran jurist who has a reputation for liberal interpretation of Government security statutes….South African judges traditionally are reticent about their personal backgrounds. But associates of Leon described him as a liberal jurist with a record of challenging government emergency decrees.” In an interview on his retirement Leon explained his views on the death penalty as follows:

“I don’t like capital punishment. I have had to impose the death sentence on a fair number of occasions. It always causes me acute distress. I do not believe in capital punishment for three reasons: it brutalises society, there is no satisfactory evidence that it does in fact act as the deterrent which it is intended to be, and there is a possibility of error. It is a sentence imposed by men who are fallible with consequences which are irreversible. When one takes an oath of office one tries to be true to one’s oath and if one is unable to find extenuating circumstances then one is obliged to pass the death sentence. My wife will tell you that for some days afterwards I am very shaken up. I find it extremely upsetting.” (Sunday Tribune 21 August 1987)

The Andrew Zondo case

The sole (factual) basis then on which the Mail & Guardian and IOL could label Leon a “hanging judge” is the conviction for murder and the death sentence he handed down in the case of Andrew Zondo. Zondo, a young MK cadre, had planted a limpet mine in a rubbish bin in the concourse of the Sanlam Centre in Amanzimtoti at 10.30am on the morning of the 23 December 1985. This was two days before Christmas and the centre was packed with holiday makers.

The bomb was timed to go off in just under a half-an-hour and when it exploded it killed five people and injured 48. Those killed in the blast were Willem van Wyk, 2, from Vereenigeng in the Transvaal; Corneo Smit, 8, from Pretoria Gardens; Sharon Bothma, 16, from Benoni, Transvaal; Anna Scheurer, 40, from Amamzimtoi; and Irma Benisni, 48, from Randfontein in the Transvaal. The attack was described at the time as the “worst terror bomb attack in Natal and the second worst in the country after the Pretoria car bomb blast” of 1982. (Natal Witness, 24 December 1985)

MK claimed the attack as one of its own in the section "MK in Combat" in the first issue of its journal Dawn in 1986. In the list of actions carried out by MK in 1985 it stated: “23/12/1985: A bomb rocked a massive shopping centre at the Amazimtoti beach resort, south of Durban. Seven whites were killed and 46 others injured, many critically.”

In 1985 the ANC had repeatedly called for the People’s War to be taken into the white areas of the country, and Oliver Tambo had suggested that the distinction between hard and soft targets would increasingly disappear, but it had not instructed MK to directly target white civilians. Zondo later admitted to having chosen the target for racial reasons, preferring it over two government installations in the area, and to planting the bomb. He was accompanied by an accomplice who would later turn state witness against him. Zondo said he carried out this attack in retaliation for the Security Police’s raid on two MK safe houses in Lesotho on 19th December 1985 in which nine people, including MK operatives and ordinary civilians, were assassinated.

The merits of the state’s case were mostly admitted by the defence. Zondo denied however that he had intended to kill anyone. He told the court that his plan was to plant the bomb and then go to the nearby post-office and phone in a warning.

The phone booths were however all occupied and he had been unable to do so. He had then left by taxi, as had his accomplice, and he had later heard about the explosion over Capital Radio early that afternoon. Zondo’s version was that when he heard the news he had been happy at the success of the explosion, but devastated by the loss of life. His accomplice told the court however that this killing was pre-mediated and Zondo had expressed dissatisfaction, after the fact, that fewer people had been killed in the explosion than in the Maseru raid.

In his judgment Leon accepted the version of the accomplice, whom he described as an excellent witness. He also noted that it was inherently implausible that Zondo would have planted a bomb in the shopping centre at the time he had if his objective had been, as he avowed, to avoid loss of life. If this was his goal he could’ve planted it in another place, such as a parking garage, or at another time, when there would have been few people around. Leon further noted, “the method he suggested of avoiding people being killed was cumbersome and far-fetched in this crowded concourse and at the time which he had at his disposal, and even if one thought that was not far-fetched, he made no attempt when he claims he still had time to return to the scene of the crime and defuse the bomb.”

Leon described Zondo as a person of high intelligence, and also wrote sympathetically of the reasons why he had decided to take up arms against the state. He also noted that this was not a crime committed “from one of the baser human instincts such as greed, avarice or self-aggrandizement.” Rather it was an act committed – as Zondo saw it - as a soldier of the African National Congress, in service of his people. In conclusion Leon and his assessors ruled:

“At the end of the day after having given all these matters which are relevant the very best attention that we possibly can, the factor which has weighed most with us is the fact that the accused, even on his own evidence disregarding orders which he had from a higher authority [not to target civilians], deliberately selected a target in a crowded shopping centre two days before Christmas well knowing that the limpet mine which he had put into operation would explode within twenty-five to thirty minutes, and would thereby kill indiscriminately any member of the population who happened to be in the vicinity, black or white, innocent or guilty, young or old. We are unanimously of the clear view that extenuating circumstances are not present in this case.” [1]

As such the death penalty was mandatory. The day after Leon handed down sentence the ANC issued a statement strongly condemning the “judicial murder of Comrade Andrew Zondo by the Pretoria Botha-Malan apartheid regime.”

Post-1994 the Andrew Zondo case would be often invoked by senior ANC leaders in an effort to discredit the outspoken leader of the Democratic Party (then Democratic Alliance), Tony Leon. For instance, in a speech on the debate on the report of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in the National Assembly on 25th February 1999 the then Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma claimed:

“The depth of our humanity, is illustrated by the fact that the judge who had the discretion to hang, or not to hang, a young revolutionary like Andrew Zondo is still a judge, and his progeny enjoys the fruit of the very freedom that Andrew died for.”

As Leon noted in his 2008 autobiography On the Contrary “Zondo became a cause celebre, not simply because the ANC saw him as a martyr, but also because it assisted their demonization of me… as ‘the son of an apartheid operative who ordered the execution of comrade Andrew Zondo’ – to use one of their more recent depictions of the event.”

The Mail & Guardian’s misreporting of Judge Leon’s death is emblematic of the wider inability of a younger generation of South African journalists and public intellectuals - who have grown up under ANC ideological and political hegemony - to differentiate even the crudest propaganda about the past (from the most unreliable sources) from easily ascertainable historical fact.


[1] Fatima Meer, The Trial of Andrew Zondo: A Sociological Insight, (Skotaville Publishers: Johannesburg, 1987)