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Grahamstown High Court Judge Johan Froneman says he feels humbled and honoured to be recently chosen to serve South Africa as a Constitutional Court (CC) judge.
Froneman (56) who was born and raised in Cathcart in the Eastern Cape, is one of four judges appointed this weekend by President Jacob Zuma to the CC, the highest court in the country.
Although seemingly reserved, he is widely regarded as a judicial activist whose a passion for the Constitution is etched in the lines of his judgments, lectures and public pronouncements.
He describes the Constitution as the country’s “never again” document which was designed to ensure the atrocities of apartheid were never repeated.
“It says never again to oppression, never again to ‘unfreedom’, never again to personal indignity, never again to a society built on inequality.” He said all judges needed to look beyond the letter of the law to how their judgments would advance the values of the Constitution.
The CC was the “final guarantor" of what the Constitution promised. It was an important institution and would remain so in a country where a large proportion of the population remained poor. “The Constitution is ‘pro-poor’ in that it provides for socio-economic rights: access to water, health, education and the like. To the extent that delivery in these areas may not come up to the expectations of people it may be that the CC will be more frequently called upon than has been the case to date to nudge government to fulfil its obligations.”
In his capacity as an Eastern Cape High Court judge, Froneman has been at the forefront in this regard. In 2000 he made a landmark ruling in which he allowed four disabled people to bring a class action on behalf of tens of thousands of other disabled people whose grants were unilaterally cut by Eastern Cape authorities.
Froneman found that the grants of the individual applicants were unlawfully stopped in violation of their Constitutional rights and ordered that they be reinstated. His judgment paved the way for tens of thousands of disabled people who could not afford legal representation to secure justice and access to their grants.
Froneman has also been particularly harsh on those in political power whom he regarded as having failed in their Constitutional duties to the poor. He was especially unsympathetic to those within the administration who tended to disregard court orders.
After the administration failed to consider the social grant application of an elderly man as ordered by the courts in 2001, he warned in a judgment that those who disregarded court orders “must know that they are destroying the Constitutional democracy that enables them to govern. They then bear the responsibility for betraying the ideals of those who struggled to enable them to be where they are".
He said he hoped he could contribute to the CC a “reasonable understanding of the history and diversity of our society, and a belief that we have chosen to overcome that divided past by using our diversity to create future unity".
Froneman was born and raised in a farming family in the Cathcart community. He attended primary school in Cathcart and then went on to matriculate at Grey College. He obtained his BA from Stellenbosch University in 1974 and his LLB from Unisa in 1977. In 1980 he came to Grahamstown as an advocate and became a Senior Counsel in 1990. He was appointed a judge of the Grahamstown High Court in 1994.
In 1996 he was appointed Deputy Judge President of the newly established Labour Appeal Court. Together with then Judge President John Myburgh, he helped set up and develop this court. He has also acted in the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein. Froneman has served as Extraordinary Professor in the Department of Public Law at the University of Stellenbosch and has attended both Harvard University in the USA as a visiting researcher and Oxford University in the UK as an academic visitor.
In his letter of nomination to the CC, Prof Sandra Liebenberg from the Law Faculty of Stellenbosch University described Froneman as having “formidable judicial and academic skills” as well as being a man of "humility, integrity and empathy with the plight of others”.
Although Froneman will now be based in Johannesburg for work purposes, he says Grahamstown will remain his home.