Darkness and light

2012-12-18 00:00

WHEN Justice Zakeria “Zac” Mohammed Yacoob was interviewed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) in 1997, prior to his appointment as a Constitutional Court judge in 1998, Judge Ismail Mahomed observed that Yacoob had enjoyed “one of the most intimate associations with the evolution of the Constitution of this country”.

Yacoob’s modest response: “I have been very privileged in that regard.”

Reviewing the course of Yacoob’s life, his passion for building a constitutional democracy is a constant: clearly something that won’t end with his retirement at the end of January next year.

Yacoob was born in Durban, in 1948. Aged 16 months, he contracted meningitis and became blind. He attended Durban’s Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind from 1956 onwards. In 1967, Yacoob began studying for a BA at the University College, Durban (now University of KwaZulu-Natal), majoring in English and private law, completing his bachelor of law degree at the University of Durban-Westville in 1972. He married Anu, a social worker, in 1970 and they have two children.

Yacoob served pupillage in Durban from March to June 1973 and was admitted as an advocate by the then Natal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court in March 1973, practising as a junior counsel from July 1973 to May 1991 when he took Silk.

From the mid-seventies on, Yacoob built up a reputation as a lawyer at the forefront of opposition to the apartheid regime’s draconian security legislation. Among the prominent cases he was involved with was that of the Durban Six (Archie Gumede, Mewa Ramgobin, George Sewpersad, M.J. Naidoo, Billy Nair and Paul David), who took refuge in Durban’s British Consulate in 1984 to avoid detention by the South African authorities. Representing them saw Yacoob go to London to negotiate with the British government and on to the United Nations in New York.

Yacoob cites the Delmas Treason Trial as the most memorable he was involved with. This saw the prosecution of 22 anti-apartheid activists in a trial lasting from 1985 to 1988. Eleven of the accused were found guilty. Their sentences were overturned in 1989, following an appeal to the Supreme Court. “It was memorable for its sheer length and its ultimate result,” says Yacoob. “And for the incredible legal team. Imagine being led by Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos.”

Outside the courts, Yacoob was also politically active. He joined the ANC in 1967. “It was the sort of thing you do at that age — justice means more to you as a kid.” He was also involved in the creation of the UDF, becoming a member of the Natal executive.

He was an executive member of the Natal Indian Congress from 1981 to 1991, and chairperson and a member of the executive of the Democratic Lawyers Association.

In 1980, Yacoob was chairperson of the Durban Committee of 10, this during a time of turmoil in education when, with many community leaders in detention, an entity was needed to bridge the gap between protesting pupils and the authorities. The question was how? “The government had banned all meetings of more than 10 people. So we thought ‘okay, we’ll have a committee of 10 — and each of those can meet with another 10 at the next level’.” With the result that eventually 100 000 people were involved.

“Education was a field of struggle for freedom in those days,” says Yacoob. “The thrust of the attack was on Bantu Education. An attack against government education then was an attack against apartheid. Now the concern is that the government is not doing its job as it should.”

In 1991, with full democracy looming, Yacoob’s involvement in politics receded. “Party politics is not my scene,” he says.

As he told the JSC: “My involvement in politics was really an involvement in the effort to achieve democracy in the country, which was very close to me. Once democracy was achieved, the process of deepening democracy, the kinds of processes that I would have wanted to be involved in, were not necessarily consistent with the kind of politics that is concerned principally with which political party is in power.”

At the end of 1993, Yacoob was appointed a commissioner on the Independent Electoral Commission. “Getting an election up and running in four months was a huge job. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life — working 21 hours a day, including Saturdays and Sundays. It was highly challenging and hugely enjoyable.”

From November 1994 to October 1996, Yacoob served as a member of the Panel of Independent Experts of the Constitutional Assembly, an advisory body assisting the assembly in “setting down carefully the principles the country would operate (on) in the future”.

“We would give an opinion to the assembly if (it was) in conflict with constitutional principles. We were really helpers.”

Yacoob’s appointment as a Constitutional Court judge on February 1, 1998, was clearly a logical next step. About to retire, he is now looking to find his “next place in contribution to the same struggle”. For Yacoob, the struggle continues: “There is still not full equality, and there is still racism and lack of respect for the individual.”

But Yacoob has no illusions with regards to the government of any country left to its own resources and the temptations of power and strength. “Calling the government to account is essential.”

Yacoob has spoken publicly about being disturbed at comments from the government, expressing “concern or resentment” at proposed legislation being challenged in court. “They are entitled to say to the people ‘don’t go to court, come and talk to us and we can sort it out’,” — pointing out that section 34 of the Constitution allows the right of access to a court, and adding that when judgments don’t go their way, the government and other critics “must accept that the Constitutional Court is correct”.

While Yacoob says he doesn’t fear for the future of the Constitution, he admits to having some serious concerns. “One is corruption,” he says. “This is a serious problem. And not a serious problem in the government alone, but also in business. The government and business associate with each other in corrupt practices and the first approach usually comes from business. If this is allowed to continue, it will eat up our society sooner than we imagine.”

Secondly, Yacoob cites problems in the education system:“If that is not resolved, we have a problem. Thirdly, the police don’t appear to be acting with the discipline they should. These three issues need to be sorted out urgently. But we have made a lot of progress.”

Yacoob intends furthering that progress by lecturing at the universities of Pretoria, Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal on constitutional law. “I want to inspire students about the Constitution and also to talk about the Constitution … I hope I can create more of the same enthusiasm, as mine alone is not enough.”

A somewhat lighter workload will also see Yacoob become more involved in working with the KwaZulu-Natal Blind and Deaf society in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. “I’m a blind person first. I acknowledge my blindness; I don’t go with this nonsense of ‘visually impaired’,” he says. “I’m comfortable with my blindness. It’s who I am.”

Yacoob’s blindness was seen by some as an issue when sitting as a judge. They were worried that he wouldn’t see the reaction on people’s faces or whether they were shifting about during questioning. “But that’s a bad reason,” he says. “You have to listen to the content of what people are saying very carefully. You need to understand a person before you can tell what kind of person he or she is. People might be shifting about simply because they are nervous.”

Many have attested to Yacoob’s phenomenal memory, but how, being blind, is he able to access the information necessary to do his job in the first place?

“Prior to 1996, I had a full-time reader,” he says. “Now I have four ways of reading: via computer with voice software; in court I have a braille printer, which can print out things that I want to study properly; plus, I have a braille note-taker, with a braille keyboard and refreshable braille display; and I also have a reader. I am the most spoilt blind person in the world.”

Yacoob pays tribute to the Reverend Arthur Blaxall, and his pioneering work for blind and deaf people of colour, and the opening of his school in Durban, in 1954. “Imagine what would have happened to me if he hadn’t.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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