Vuyani Pambo11 March 2024 | 16:19

VUYANI PAMBO: John Hlophe's impeachment will have far-reaching consequences

Without any sense of contradiction, the same ANC government stripped naked what it was celebrating as the fruits of its struggle against apartheid, writes Vuyani Pambo.

VUYANI PAMBO: John Hlophe's impeachment will have far-reaching consequences

FILE: Former Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe. Picture:

On Wednesday, 21 February, there was blood on the floor of Parliament, where Judge Mandlakayise John Hlophe was lynched on the tree of our liberty that was watered by the blood of our freedom fighters, who laid down their lives for us to be free. 

Judge Hlophe’s impeachment, 30 years after the dawn of political democracy in South Africa and for the first time in Parliament, reminded me of a poem by songwriter, teacher and member of the American Communist Party, Abel Meeropol, titled Strange Fruits.

Meeropol described the experience of lynching as “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees.”

South Africans stood aside and witnessed the removal of South Africa’s first Black Judge to be permanently appointed to the Western Cape High Court - an achievement he accomplished at the tender age of 36, also making him the first full-time academic to be appointed as a High Court Judge, and later Judge President in the year 2000.

The spectacle, as we learn from Abel’s poem, has less to do with the transgression nor the transgressor, but rather everything to do with the onlooker. “Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh. Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh,” wrote Meeropol.

The horrific experience relies on its dramatisation. Without the drama, without the parade, the show, the malevolent exhibition, it cannot be lynching. It must be a public show of dehumanisation, a circus for the wicked, a terrifying sight for those who dare defy the status quo.

Unsurprisingly, the removal of Judge Hlophe had very little to do with his transgression, nor did it have anything to do with him as an individual and professional, rather it had everything to do with us, the onlookers, namely the black onlookers, who are socially, economically, and historically disenfranchised.

Hlophe was born in a rural settlement called Madundube in northern KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). His mother was a sugarcane cutter, and his father a traditional healer. It would not have been in the plans of the architects and forefathers of the racist apartheid regime for a child of a sugarcane cutter in rural KZN to ascend to the most senior position in the Western Cape High Court, in Cape Town.

Among the onlookers, therefore, must be children of farmworkers, security guards, domestic workers, petrol attendants and sugarcane cutters, who were reminded by the government of the day that black people belong in farms cutting grass and picking sugar for white people, not on high and respected benches of the judiciary. 

Some of those who were cheering for his impeachment included members of the African National Congress (ANC), our ruling party, which prides itself as the oldest libertarian movement in Africa. And yet on this day, as always, they seem to be suffering from political myopia.

The impeachment of Judge Hlophe is the first of its kind in South Africa’s history. No judge, black or white, has been impeached and stripped of their salary and benefits of being a judge for life. This travesty of justice happens just weeks after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s failed attempt to woo the people of South Africa with a fictional story about what he called “Tintswalos” of the democratic government of the ANC.

In his final State of the National Address (SONA), Ramaphosa sought to make the case that there are children of democracy who have and continue to benefit from the gains of post-apartheid South Africa. Opportunistically claiming the success of every previously disadvantaged and oppressed persons, he suggested that all those who did not have opportunities to prosper before 1994 now had opportunities to progress - given to them by the ANC government.

Without any sense of contradiction, the same ANC government stripped naked what it was celebrating as the fruits of its struggle against apartheid. In its typical two-faced fashion, it carries on the one hand a placard advertising the successes and black excellence of the Judge Hlophes of democratic South Africa, and on the other hand it carries a rope to lynch the very black professionals who have risen and excelled in their careers against all odds.

The government of the day must hang its head in shame for failing to protect and insulate our black role models and paragons of excellence from racist public humiliation and victimisation.

The removal of Judge Hlophe has far-reaching consequences, as it affirms the colonial vision to destroy and distort all progressive and positive history of African people.

It was not enough for the colonialist to oppress and disempower us, it was also necessary to portray the African people as being underdeveloped, unprosperous, and incapable of progressing in their personal and professional lives.

This is why Steve Biko wrote, “No wonder the African child learns to hate his heritage in his days at school. So negative is the image presented to him that he tends to find solace only in close identification with the white society.”

This is the material and psychological impact of the witnessing the purging of such a prominent and highly accomplished black judge. More accomplished than even his white counterparts, many of whom fraudulently and undeservedly enjoy privileges of social, economic, and political protection.

If Judge Hlophe, at his level, can be a victim of such dehumanisation, what about the black student who just graduated from law school? What of the black junior attorney, the junior advocate and/or aspirant judge? These are the black onlookers who must witness the lynching, so that they may never speak truth to power or dare to challenge the status quo.

The preservation of black excellence, history and successes can only be achieved by our collective will and determination to elect a government which is unapologetically pro-Black and pro-African.

Our most urgent task is to remove the ANC from government and political power. Lest we watch as the crows pluck, the wind sucks, the sun rots, and the trees drop the bitter fruit, hanging on “Southern trees.”

Judge President Mandlakayise John Hlophe, and many others like him, must be protected not only for their sake, but for generations to come.

Vuyani Pambo is an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) member of Parliament.