Legal Services Ombudsman Judge Desai should be held accountable for contravening the Judicial Oath.

An officer of the South African court should not support an anti-Jewish extremist organisation, Hamas.

Today, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has submitted a replying affidavit to the Judicial Complaints Commission (JCC) as recently appointed Legal Services Ombudsman, Judge Siraj Desai, continues to politicise the judiciary with inflammatory comments that run contrary to the Judicial Code of Conduct and undermines the separation of powers between the government and the Judiciary. These include his support of Hamas – an extremist organisation whose constitution calls for the killing of Jews. 

Judge Siraj Desai is a former Judge of the High Court in South Africa, and since December 2020, the Legal Services Ombudsman, which is charged with safeguarding the integrity of the legal profession. Earlier this year, the SAZF laid a complaint with the Judicial Complaints Commission for his politicising of the judiciary over a period of 10 years. For example, last year, during an interview with an Iranian YouTuber, Desai made inappropriate statements likening Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, an acknowledged violator of human rights, to former President Nelson Mandela. This comparison between the champion of peace, who led the struggle for the fall of apartheid, with a regime that commits gross human rights abuses, is offensive to South African history and calls into question the moral judgement of Desai. 

During the same interview, Judge Desai undermined South African Foreign Policy by referring to the United State of America, a major trade partner and supporter of our country, as the “Great Satan”. This is a clear violation of the Code of Conduct for the Judiciary and the separation of powers inherent in our constitution. Instead of apologising for these utterances, Judge Desai subsequently and unapologetically has reiterated both stances at a political event in Cape Town a few weeks ago.   

Judge Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby in South Africa, and actively participating in the antisemitic BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Despite his long-standing links to organisations such as the BDS, in 2015 Judge Desai presided over a case brought by BDS activists rather than recusing himself on the basis of conflict of interests. In 2018, Judge Desai entertained the Palestinian extremist group, Hamas, during their trip to South Africa. Hamas is a violent organisation whose founding charter calls for Jewish genocide, and the total destruction of Israel. Using the prestige of the Judicial Office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the Judicial Code of Conduct and shows an open hostility towards the Jewish community, and the rights of South African minorities. 

The SAZF does not bring this complaint to the Judicial Complaints Commission lightly and does not aim to curtail freedom of expression. The SAZF is on record in defending the rights of Judges to express their views within the ambit of the Judicial Code, especially when balanced fairly in the interests of justice. However, with the appointment of Judge Siraj Desai as Legal Services Ombudsman and in the interests of justice and the reputation of the legal profession, it is essential to hold Judge Desai accountable for his actions and violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct which is unacceptable from a Judicial Officer. 

The South African Zionist Federation focuses on the connection between Israel and South Africa, especially as it affects South African Jews. This support remains powerful among SA Jewry and millions outside the community. Israel is a friend of South Africa and we should focus on building peaceful partnerships.

Rolene Marks
Spokesperson – Legal Forum
South African Zionist Federation