By RAY HARTLE
The axe has finally fallen on recalcitrant East London magistrate Xoliswa Stuurman.
And the city’s chief magistrate Valerie Gqiba’s head is also on the block, possibly as a result of the Stuurman fallout.
Stuurman was dismissed by Justice Minister Michael Musuthu in a letter sent on January 24, following a torturous process which started in 2012 and involved three investigations into her conduct on the bench and in office.
Gqiba was among the complainants against Stuurman who, in turn, accused Gqiba of having a vendetta against her.
Gqiba faced her own disciplinary hearing last year arising from abuse of travel benefits and was recommended for dismissal. The complainant was Port Elizabeth magistrates cluster head Sibongile Raphahlelo, who was a defence witness in Stuurman’s disciplinary case.
Stuurman’s dismissal was confirmed by both houses of Parliament following a recommendation of the Magistrates Commission. Gqiba’s dismissal proposal has not yet been to the National Assembly, although the National Council of Provinces has already voted to fire her.
Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery, who confirmed Stuurman’s firing, said he was not in a position to comment on Gqiba’s position because the Parliamentary process was still underway. But no evidence had been brought to his attention which pointed to “anything untoward” in her disciplinary hearing.
Gqiba has asked the North Gauteng high court to suspend her dismissal pending review of the tribunal’s findings.
Stuurman, 47, first sunk into public ignominy in 2014 when allegations surfaced that she was racist, recalcitrant, unprofessional, worked at “her own snail’s pace” and flatly refused to do her job.
One of her earliest transgressions was her refusal in 2011 to accept legal service of notice for a high court review of a series of civil judgments she had handed down. The Grahamstown high court subsequently overruled what they hinted were her biased decisions in that matter.
She was described by senior magistrate in East London Fanie Stander, the current acting chief magistrate, as “a law unto yourself”.
It took five years to finalise the disciplinary proceedings against Stuurman, but she was eventually convicted in December 2016 on 17 counts of misconduct.
Presiding officer of her disciplinary tribunal and Germiston magistrate Mumtaz Dawray said Stuurman’s actions lacked integrity, showed a “complete lack of respect” for and were “a mockery” of the country’s legal system and the Constitution.
She offended almost every section of the legal fraternity, including attorneys, her colleagues on the bench, and justice department administrative staff. In a bid to protect its staff, the National Prosecuting Authority decided against prosecuting cases in her court.
Her misdemeanours ranged wide, including publicly claiming that Gqiba had brought “trumped up charges” against her, and that “white colleagues as well as white attorneys” were plotting against her because they hated her efficiency. She refused to attend a meeting Gqiba called to deal with a backlog in default judgment cases.
She accused attorneys of lying and of being racist, wilfully refused to act on instructions from superiors, disregarded management authority, was rude, disrespectful and rebellious, engaged in disobedient gestures and abusive language.
In recommending dismissal, Dawray said: “It is obvious that Ms Stuurman is under the belief that she is not accountable to anyone.”
Stuurman told Stander that she was “independent from his control”.
The errant magistrate was found to have acted without integrity and did not uphold the good name, dignity and esteem of the office of magistrate.
A measure of Stuurman’s tenacity is that the charges against her were first enrolled by the commission in 2012. She was hot-headed to the end, asking to be excused from the hearing on the day of her sentencing, leaving the room despite the presiding officer refusing her request. She returned momentarily to repeat her request and then left the room indicating that she was excusing herself again.
The audio record, said the presiding officer, reflects “exactly what we had to deal with and the character of the magistrate displayed throughout the proceedings”.
“One can accept if it is a once-off incident but… Ms Stuurman has been conducting herself in this fashion for a few years,” said Dawray.
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