The Nicholson Judgment: An Exercise in Law and Politics

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Journal of African Law, Volume 54, p.143–155 (2010)



1942-, South Africa, Thabo, {JUDICIAL} process, {MBEKI}, {PRESIDENTS}, {RESIGNATION}


The Nicholson judgment was clearly a precipitating factor in the resignation of former South African President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. Engaging with the judgment in its own terms, this note first puts forward a best legal interpretation of the judgment, covering the doctrines of prosecutorial independence and legitimate expectations. It then identifies the degree to which the comment in the judgment may be termed politically activist. In the authors' view, Nicholson tackled political issues in his judgment that he need not have: in particular, allegations of executive interference in the independence of the prosecutions authority. Assuming that Nicholson J's text may be read as an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of the judiciary, the note explores whether it succeeds on those terms and concludes that the judgment is ultimately an example of failed dramatic art.

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