Half-forgotten hero

2010-10-06 00:00

FEW people stood up to the ill-tempered P. W. Botha. One who did was Judge Anton Mostert, then a member of the Natal bench and living happily in Pietermaritzburg.

In 1978 he was appointed to investigate exchange-control irregularities. What he found was not just the expected under- and over-invoicing­, but major government criminality.

The press was already onto the secret government projects masterminded by Connie Mulder and Eschel Rhoodie that became known as the Information Scandal. Mostert provided the conclusive evidence. This was after one of Botha’s famous tirades in which, in an unprecedented act of political interference in the work of a judge, he forbade release of the commission’s findings.

Carmel Rickard’s engrossing account shows Mostert to be a complex individual of enormous ability as a lawyer; but above all of courage and integrity. His grandfather, a Boer War veteran and lifelong follower of Jan Smuts, moulded Mostert’s distaste for cronyism and official illegality. He despised what he called the Koffiefontein clique of John Vorster and Hendrik van den Bergh with their neo-Nazi, wartime internment past.

Qualified in law and commerce, Mostert had previously made a name for himself by taking on South Africa’s censors in the days when it was possible to appeal to the courts against bannings. He won a string of cases, most famously on behalf of Scope.

After he was dismissed from the exchange control commission for his defiance of Botha, a conservative Judge President made his working life impossible, so he resigned and returned to the Johannesburg bar.

Defending principle in the face of authoritarianism is hard even for the toughest and Mostert suffered physically and psychologically. Although still a formidable legal opponent, his career ended unfulfilled and he died relatively young in 1995. But what he had precipitated in 1978 was a crisis in Afrikanerdom that unpeeled another layer of the immorality of apartheid.

Mostert made a strong public case for fundamental freedoms without which, in his words, individual rights amount to no more than a ‘row of beans’. So this book speaks to us today.

Colin Eglin summed it up in the parliamentary debate on the Erasmus Commission’s whitewash back in 1978. Government corruption, he said, could only be defeated by a tenacious press and the courage of an independent judiciary, personified by the redoubtable Mostert.

Bookshop shelves groan under the weight of struggle memoirs. But Rickard has done us a great favour. She has revived an important event that has a message for our times. And she has helped in the necessary process of correcting a monochromatic view of our past. It is full of half-forgotten heroism.

 

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