As images of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s plane taking off from Pretoria in defiance of a court order beamed across the world, many South Africans wondered not only why the South African government was so eager to let an alleged war criminal escape justice before the International Criminal Court, but also whether this marked the beginning of the end of the rule of law in South Africa.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir prepares for a group photograph ahead of the African Union summit in Johannesburg June 14, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

President Jacob Zuma apparently assured Bashir that he could safely leave South Africa, and then provided him with a police escort and a high-ranking Home Affairs official to facilitate immigration formalities for him and his entourage. It was, as an eminent South African lawyer and academic said, a “deliberate, pre-meditated act of contempt of court.”

The decision will have far-reaching consequences, not only for the government, but for every person in South Africa who relies on the courts to protect their rights and deliver on the promise of the constitution that everyone is equal before the law. 

One of the founding provisions of the 1996 constitution is respect for the rule of law. The constitutional provisions on courts couldn’t be clearer: the courts are independent and subject only to the constitution and the law, which they must apply “impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice.” A court order binds any person or institution to whom it applies, including organs of state. Until now, the government’s willingness to respect these provisions and comply with court orders, even when they openly disagreed with them, gave the courts legitimacy in the eyes of South Africans and the world. 

The implications of the government’s actions are potentially grave and far-reaching: they will undoubtedly reinforce concerns that Zuma’s government, widely seen as deeply corrupt, will use this decision as a precedent to undermine other court decisions that don’t go their way and threaten their cronies and bagmen. 

More than that, ordinary people will lose confidence in the administration of justice. In a country with high levels of crime and where the courts have largely been seen as one of the few democratic institutions that have lived up to their potential, this will be a real tragedy that does not bode well for the country’s future.   

The court has demanded an explanation of why Bashir was allowed to leave, and the government has promised to comply with this order within seven days. Let’s hope it does so and begins to slowly restore much-needed credibility.