Judge Mahendra Chetty is interviewed during applications for the KwaZulu-Natal division of the High Court on Wednesday.  Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Judge Mahendra Chetty is interviewed during applications for the KwaZulu-Natal division of the High Court on Wednesday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

WHILE most of the candidates interviewed for appointment to the KwaZulu-Natal High Court were magistrates, the majority of them had difficult interviews and it was the attorneys and advocates who won over the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) in Cape Town on Wednesday.

The commission announced that of the nine candidates interviewed, attorneys Mahendra Chetty and Thoba Poyo-Dlwati, Peter Olsen SC and one magistrate, Nkosinathi Chili, would be recommended to President Jacob Zuma for appointment.

The commission had initially advertised three vacant positions in the KwaZulu-Natal division, but following its recommendation of Durban-based high court judge Kevin Swain to the Supreme Court of Appeal on Tuesday it decided to fill that vacancy as well.

Mr Chetty, regional director of the Legal Resources Centre, Durban office, had a warm interview overall, and deftly navigated questions by Deputy Home Affairs Minister Fatima Chohan about her "slight discomfort" with would-be judges that had an activist background as human rights lawyers.

Mr Chetty’s questionnaire referred to "24 years’ experience acting on behalf of poor communities in Johannesburg and Durban".

But Ms Chohan said while she had respect for lawyers whose career was focused on fighting cases on behalf of the indigent, she wanted reassurance that he would deal impartially in cases where indigent people took on the state.

Mr Chetty said he was a fair person and would not abdicate his judicial responsibility to deal with cases before him impartially.

Ms Chohan repeated her concern to Mr Olsen, saying she found it "a bit disturbing" some candidates wanted to be appointed judges "while espousing very fervent human rights activist tendencies". It is "fine when you’re a lawyer, but disconcerting on the bench", she said.

Ms Poyo-Dlwati appeared to disarm the commission with her responses to questions around the inherent patriarchy in the legal profession, which she felt was due to briefing patterns that favoured men. Noting that government was "a major user of legal services", Ms Poyo-Dlwati, suggested this be addressed in a white paper by the Department of Justice.

She noted that she was "fortunate" to practise in KwaZulu-Natal where the provincial government "had some confidence in black firms". This had allowed her firm and career to develop.

Nkosinathi Chili apparently impressed with a compassionate understanding of rural and urban life in KwaZulu-Natal, speaking of the need for judges to come from the communities they serve and to plough back. He said traditional courts were necessary, but they needed to be monitored and their presiding officers trained.

But apart from Mr Chili, the magistrates fared badly overall.

By far the worst interview was with magistrate Sibusiso Msani after it was revealed that an objection had been lodged with the JSC that he had used his position to delay paying maintenance for three children.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng asked him to explain why, even after a paternity test showed him 99.999% likely to be the father of three children, he had repeatedly sought to postpone a maintenance case against him. Mr Msani said the case had been delayed because when he had sought a second opinion on the paternity test, the mother of the children had refused.