After a decade of infighting due to the prevailing cult of personality, there is now a serious backlog of cases — a backlog that is not only delaying but also denying many people the justice they deserve.
While the shortage of High Court judges has certainly contributed to the mountain of unheard cases, the system has also been severely compromised by the fierce — and unprecedented — fight over seniority between the former Chief Justice, Mahapela Lehohla, and the President of the Appeal Court, Justice Mathealira Ramodibedi (who is also, notoriously, the Chief Justice of Swaziland).
By virtue of being the head of the apex court in the country, Justice Ramodibedi considered himself more senior than the country’s Chief Justice, who — by virtue of being the officer who oversees all judicial matters and does not perform his duties on an ad hoc basis — regarded himself as occupying the highest rung on the judicial ladder.
When the fight first reared its ugly head, Ramodibedi allegedly asked the office of the Prime Minister to intervene and the former Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, did weigh in on his side, telling the Chief Justice that he was junior to Ramodibedi.
But then everything changed.
An opposition coalition ousted Mosisili in elections in June 2012, and it soon became clear that the new authorities were not about to line up behind Ramodibedi.
Indeed, the current Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane, was recently said to have asked Ramodibedi to resign — and subsequently ordered him to be stripped of the perks that come with the presidency of the Appeal Court, including his official vehicles.
Never one to duck a fight, Ramodibedi contested this in the Lesotho High Court and had his privileges restored when the case was postponed.
However, the government is now mooting even more drastic action — Ramodibedi’s impeachment.
The possible charges against him include allegedly making a false representation after his official vehicle was involved in an accident and allegedly overpaying himself after a Court of Appeal session in Maseru.
But Ramodibedi is a key player in yet another — even more severe — judicial crisis.
Appointed Chief Justice of Swaziland by King Mswati III, Ramodibedi has overseen a collapse of faith in the Swazi justice system and a loss of respect for the rule of law.
Constitutionally, Swaziland should have a Swazi Chief Justice by now but the King shows no signs of wanting to part with Ramodibedi, who recently — in an act that caused consternation far and wide — gave three cows to Mswati.
Someone who holds two such powerful judicial offices really should understand — and champion — the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary but clearly Ramodibedi’s loyalty at the moment lies with the Swazi king rather than the law.
And from a personal point of view, his wholehearted support for King Mswati does make sense since his own government back in Maseru looks like it will impeach him.
But while he is protecting his own back, Ramodibedi is causing untold damage to the judicial systems in two countries — damage that could take years to repair and will undermine democracy, the rule of law and urgently-needed development.